George Rathmann, Founding CEO of Amgen and Icos, Dies at 84

Xconomy Seattle — 

[Updated: 9:25 pm PT] George Rathmann, the first CEO of Amgen and a pioneer who inspired a generation within the biotech industry, has died at the age of 84. He had kidney disease and lived through dialysis treatments in his final years.

Rathmann was best known as the guy who bet the company at Amgen in the early 1980s, where he guided the first really big success story in the fledgling biotech industry. Back when nobody really knew what to do with the new gene-splicing technologies—legend has it that Amgen considered making indigo dye for blue jeans—Rathmann settled on a strategy for building on the work of Amgen scientist Fu-Kuen Lin. It was Lin who made it possible to engineer copies of the erythropoietin protein as a treatment for anemia. Rathmann believed in the idea so strongly that he laid out a compelling strategy to investors, raised a lot of money, and invested big in a modern factory before the drug even won FDA approval, so Amgen could be ready to seize opportunity quickly.

That drug—which some dismissed as a niche product at the time—transformed the care of kidney dialysis patients and cancer chemotherapy patients, and made billions in profits over the next two decades for Amgen and its partner, Johnson & Johnson. The success with Epogen, and another product called Neupogen that advanced under Rathmann’s leadership, propelled Amgen to become the industry’s No. 1 company by product sales. It’s a title that Amgen has held throughout the 20 years since he left the company.

Rathmann, as described in his obituary in the Wall Street Journal, was a native of Milwaukee, WI who got a Ph.D in physical chemistry at Princeton, NJ. He was a vice president at Abbott Laboratories in 1980 when he was recruited by a group of venture capitalists to join the fledgling biotech venture in southern California, then called Applied Molecular Genetics.

Once Amgen was off and running in the marketing arena, Rathmann sought a new startup biotech challenge in the Northwest. Rathmann signed on as the founding CEO at Bothell, WA-based Icos in 1989, and promptly rounded up $33 million for the company a year later in a financing that included Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. That company went public a year later, grew to 700 employees at its peak, and ended up creating the billion-dollar drug tadalafil (Cialis) for erectile dysfunction. Icos was ultimately sold for $2.3 billion to Eli Lilly in 2007.

Through his entrepreneurial ventures, Rathmann became one of the most beloved figures in the industry. He served as a mentor to many young scientists and executives. In his later years, he invested in a few small companies, and joined the boards of Seattle-based ZymoGenetics, San Carlos, CA-based Hyseq (later Nuvelo), and the nonprofit Institute for Systems Biology.

Rathmann was physically big, with presence to fill a room. The Journal said he was 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds. In the few times I met him, he came across as a warm and humble giant.

“He was the best CEO – the most amazing person I’ve ever met in this industry,” says Johnny Stine, the founder of Seattle-based North Coast Biologics, a former Icos scientist.

Rathmann’s health had been in decline for many years. He suffered from kidney disease, and got dialysis treatment that included EPO, the product that he pushed for so strongly at Amgen. But even when his health was in decline and he wasn’t doing many interviews, I remember him graciously agreeing to do an interview with me in December 2006 that resonated throughout the Seattle biotech community.

I’ll never forget calling up Rathmann at his home to ask him what he thought of how the Icos acquisition was being handled. Back when I was with The Seattle Times, he told me he was “surprised” and “disappointed” to learn of the mass layoffs that were being planned. When I asked him then if he had hoped Icos would someday be as big as Amgen, even at age 78, he showed the fire was still in the belly. “Why would I stop there? You don’t have to limit your hopes to that. It was always a wonderful company,” Rathmann said.

Even though Rathmann had been gone from the company for six years, and no longer had a board seat, his words carried tremendous weight. I remember my inbox filling up the next day with comments from Icosians who were cheering on their former boss. Some of them told me they wished he had never left, or they fantasized about him somehow coming back and putting the kibosh on the sale to Lilly.

It didn’t happen, but it spoke volumes to me about a leader who inspired such strong and enduring loyalty from his troops.

If you have some favorite remembrances you’d like to share about your experiences working for or with Rathmann, please feel free to leave a comment here at the end of the story.

[Updated comments: 9:25 pm]

“George was a one of a kind. He understood the science; he had a golden tongue for persuading investors; and he was willing to take big gambles on what he knew was right. Perhaps the best biotech CEO I ever knew.”–Leroy Hood, co-founder and president, Institute for Systems Biology. Co-founder of Amgen.

“He was truly a pioneer. One of the smartest and kindest human beings I ever met. I was very, very lucky to have worked with him.”–Mike Gallatin, former vice president and scientific director, Icos.

“George Rathmann was a biotechnology giant and we were privileged to have him as our first CEO. George’s vision and values are as alive today at Amgen as they were when he led the company.”–Kevin Sharer, Chairman and CEO of Amgen, in a company statement.

“George Rathmann and his wife Joy were two of the nicest people ever to me as a young biotech wannabe.”–Bob More, general partner with Frazier Healthcare Ventures, via Twitter.

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11 responses to “George Rathmann, Founding CEO of Amgen and Icos, Dies at 84”

  1. Doug MacDougall says:

    Luke, Great eulogy to a great man. A true pioneer of our industry.

  2. Rathmann was a tremendous human being. He will be missed.

  3. Marykay Ligocki says:

    I have a tremendous amount of respect for both George and Joy Rathman. George was not only a great scientist and astute businessman, but an incredibly nice person, too. He and his wife knew every employee by name and truly cared about all the people who worked for him. There is an endless string of stories that show how he went above and beyond. Is there any information about a memorial service?

  4. James C. Blair says:

    Amgen was my first biotech investment and our firm made our investment as part of the start-up round in January, 1981. Biotech was not a household word then, and the only reason we made it was because of our confidence in George. He had a terrific record of success in building Abbott’s diagnostics business, and we admired both his business and science skills. What you never really know at the start of something like that is whether the guy would prove to be a leader, and boy, were we ever pleased with his leadership skills. He was a great guy, and a great mentor, by example. We should all leave such footprints!

  5. David McElligott says:

    A giant of a man in all respects. The industry and the world could use a few more like George but I fear the man was unique. Condolences from my family to his.

  6. Christopher HenneyChris Henney says:

    A biotech leader and friend for whom the term “legend ” properly applied .As Tim Harris wrote ” his passing is the end of an era” .I agree, he was one of a kind. Chris Henney

  7. Thanks to everybody for the great comments, it reinforces everything I’ve heard about Rathmann over the years. If I hear anything about a memorial service, I’ll be sure to update the post.

  8. Laughter: You could hear his booming laugh all over the second floor of Icos
    Stamina: Even before and after having both knees replaced – he rejected the elevator at Icos. He exclaimed that he felt great after the surgery.

    Thoughtfulness: He knew ALL of us. I was hired Dec. 5th 1994. Before the company Christmas party, I heard this loud voice from the other end of the hallway say “Welcome to Icos Johnny”. I looked up and it was him – George – I thought – “how in the hell does he know my name?”. I was employee # 185-ish. Two weeks later I see him leave. As he walked out of the building, he grabbed this large three ring binder and he proceeded to exit. Afterwards, I asked the lady at the desk what that was that George took. She told me that it was a book with all of our pictures and names. I was shocked….. She said he takes that home every other night. Contrast that to my days post Icos and absolutely NOBODY comes close to that. This act was a true litmus test for how he valued us……a phenomenon lost in today’s biotech where the CEO’s try not to get to friendly to the people that they will eventually be laying off.

    On-site Day Care: George and Joy put a day care on site for us. When my daughter was 7 weeks old, I got to bring her to work with me every day and visit her during lunch in a building just across the parking lot from mine. Thank you Joy and George – another Rathmann act of kindness that to my knowledge has never been duplicated.

    Inspirational: He always told us stories of the start-up days at Amgen. All of us wanted to start a biotech company because of those stories. When I founded Spaltudaq, I thanked George and Joy with a card to tell them that my entry into this new space was inspired in part by George and his pioneering stories.

    I always thought it was amazing that if his office door was open, you were welcome to walk into his office to ask a question. It wasn’t until after he left Icos that you realized how amazingly important and unique that was.

    This quote ” “Why would I stop there? You don’t have to limit your hopes to that. It was always a wonderful company,” mentioned above in Luke’s article. I read this quote the day it was published in the Times and it brought tears to my eyes….it made you think of what could’ve been and it was wonderful to read this attitude in light of all the industry experts saying that there will never be another Genentech or Amgen. Perhaps they were right – WE (ICOS) WOULD’VE BEEN FAR GREATER!

  9. Donna Lock says:

    Learn more about the life of George Rathmann by reading oral histories published by the Chemical Heritage Foundation and UC Berkeley on the Life Sciences Foundation website. The Life Sciences Foundation is recording the history of biotechnology.

  10. Here’s the information on the memorial service for George Rathmann:

    Friday, May 4, at First Congregational Church, 1985 Louis Road in Palo Alto, CA. The family has requested donations to a favorite charity in his memory.

  11. patty wood says:

    George was a dear, kind and funny man. We beacame friends after EPO(Epogen) dramatically saved my life during clinical trials.
    In 1986,I had only days left and was so weak from kidney failure induced aneamia that my husband carried me around. Georges’ legacy of tanacity and determination has saved thousands if not millions of lives.I know there’s a special place in heaven for him.
    I’m so lucky to have known you and your lovely wife Joy.