This year, at 44, he reached that goal, and how. The stock he owns in Genentech, Inc. is worth about $40 million. As a biochemist, as well as a businessman, he earned one of 1980's prestigious Albert Lasker medical research awards for his pioneering work in genetic engineering. Finally, Boyer found himself at the center of an academic quarrel over whether university faculty members should exploit their research for profit.
As a teenager, young Herb studied science only because his football coach taught it. The exposure took. He continued at nearby Saint Vincent College and the University of Pittsburgh, earning a Ph.D. in bacteriology. He studied microbial genetics as a postdoctoral fellow at Yale.
In 1966 Boyer joined the faculty of the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco. He did not want to be a professor—"the classroom thing, teaching from textbooks, drives me crazy," he told the Wall Street Journal. His interest was research into the DNA molecule, which carries the genes that determine hereditary characteristics.
In 1974 Boyer and Stanley Cohen of Stanford perfected a technique called "gene-splicing." It involved transplanting a gene from a South African toad into bacteria, which then reproduced the toad gene. The experiment suggested that genes may be transferred among and within species to repair genetic damage or create hybrid "worker" bacteria to produce such vital substances as insulin. In January 1976 Robert Swanson, an entrepreneur with an MIT chemistry degree, persuaded Boyer to invest a borrowed $500 and his know-how in a company they called Genentech (for "genetic engineering technology"). The idea was to market gene-splicing.
Genentech has since grown to about 112 employees and claimed success in genetically programming bacteria that turn out not only human insulin but brain and growth hormones and the experimental cancer drug interferon. Yet the company netted only $80,000 on sales of $3.5 million in the first half of 1980. And when it put 1.1 million shares of stock on public sale in October, one analyst muttered, "It's selling on the basis of announcements, promises and technology."
That didn't matter. Furious buying sent the stock from its opening price, $35, to $89 the first day. At year-end it was selling at around $40 a share; Boyer owns 925,000 shares.
His only splurge has been a new Porsche Targa. He still goes fishing, agonizes over the Pittsburgh Steelers' decline and saves time for wife Grace and his two sons. Roger spends only a day or so a month as a consultant at Genentech. At the med school, where he remains on the faculty at about $50,000 a year, he works with a dozen graduate researchers and assistants.
The issue of faculty members profiting from their lab work broke into a noisy public dispute earlier this year. UCLA filed a sweeping "unauthorized use" suit against Genentech and another company, charging they were producing interferon with the help of discoveries made on its campus.
For his part, Boyer is unapologetic about making money from the expertise he gained in his Cal-San Francisco laboratory. "I violated no rules or laws, and if someone wants to take a moral stand about how pure science should be," he has said, "I'd like him to define what is science and what is pure science." He and Cohen have already signed over financial interest in their gene-splicing patent to their universities.
Eventually the courts must settle the proprietary question, but a more important one—will gene-splicing produce the boon it portends?—can be answered only in the lab.
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