[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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