Robert A. Swanson (SB 1969, SM), a pioneer in the commercialization of recombinant DNA technology who was recognized as one of the 1,000 most important figures of the millennium, died on December 6 at the age of 52 at his home in Hillsborough, CA after a year-long battle with brain cancer. He was a former member of the MIT Corporation and held two MIT degrees, the SB in chemistry and the SM in management.
At the age of 29, Mr. Swanson founded Genentech in 1976 with scientist Herbert Boyer and transformed the biotechnology revolution into an industry.
Genentech cloned human insulin, human growth hormone, alpha interferon to treat a form of leukemia, and gamma interferon used to treat a rare immune-deficiency disease. The company produced a hepatitis B vaccine, a clotting agent for hemophiliacs and an activator to dissolve blood clots in heart attacks.
Under Mr. Swanson's management, Genentech formed research agreements with other companies and in 1979 became the first major biotech company to show a profit. It went public in 1980. Ten years later, Genentech and Roche Holding Ltd. of Switzerland completed a $2.1 billion merger.
Mr. Swanson served as CEO of Genentech from its founding in 1976 through 1990, and from 1990-96 was chairman of the board of directors.
In the book, 1,000 Years, 1,000 People: Ranking the Men and Women Who Shaped the Millennium, authors Agnes Hooper Gottlieb, Henry Gottlieb, Barbara Bowers and Brent Bowers ranked Mr. Swanson number 612, calling him the "entrepreneur who launched the biotechnology revolution."
President Charles Vest commented, "MIT is very proud to have Bob Swanson as an alumnus. He represents our finest institutional aspirations.... He is the quintessential American entrepreneur, having founded not just a company, but an industry -- one that creates wealth, jobs, and, above all else, improves health and quality of life. Gentle and warm, yet brimming with enthusiasm and ideas, Bob has been unfailingly kind and helpful to me. He shared challenging thoughts about motivating scientists to do their finest work, and about the relationship between universities and industry. He was, for a period, a valued trustee of MIT, and continued to serve on visiting committees, traveling across the country to advise us.
"Last summer I was privileged to spend several hours with Bob. He gave me a tie, saying that I needed a better way to display MIT's mascot -- the beaver. Indeed, this handsome piece of fabric was covered with beavers beneath shining moons. On close inspection, the beavers are clearly chewing down the Stanford pine tree. I wear it with pride. Yet I think most of Bob's humanity. He always shared news of his family, and especially of his daughters' triumphs on the soccer field. We frequently talked about the wonderfully talented students that MIT is fortunate to attract. He would always say, with typical humility, "What's going to happen to the average kids like me?" In reality, Bob has never been even close to average; he is a giant who made biotechnology an industry -- an entirely new way to use science to advance human health."
Institute Professor Philip Sharp, former head of biology, said, "Bob Swanson saw in this new technology an avenue to improve the lives of individuals and to create an industry which would translate modern biological science into jobs and future growth of the technology... Genentech retains many of the values of Bob Swanson such as a commitment to excellent science and its active publication. Bob also was very concerned about the people who worked for Genentech and created an environment where they could flourish. Bob Swanson was a friend of many faculty at MIT and of the Institute. He generously served as a member of the Department of Biology's Visiting Committee where his advice was very helpful."
After retiring from Genentech, Mr. Swanson formed K&E Management, a private investment management firm. He was chairman of the board of Tularik, Inc., a biotechnology firm focused on therapeutics which act through the regulation of gene expression. He contributed to numerous civic and cultural activities and served as a trustee of the San Francisco Ballet, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the San Jose Tech Center, and as chairman of the board of Nueva School. He is well remembered as Coach Bob of his daughters' winning soccer teams.
He is survived by his wife, Judy Church Swanson, and their daughters Katie, 16, and Erica, 11. His mother Arline Swanson of Foster City, CA also survives him.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 8, 1999.