Walk into a bar
At the beginning, recombinant DNA technology was limited to academic institutions’ laboratories, and only biochemists paid attention to this technology, but it soon caught the attention of the media. In May 1974, the San Francisco Chronicle carried an exclusive interview with Cohen and focused on the value of recombinant DNA technology in the article. The article stated that genetically engineered bacteria may become biological plants in the future to produce drugs and small molecule compounds. Soon the New York Times and other media began to follow up on the gene cloning technology.
Niels Reimers of the Patent Affairs Office at Stanford University was immediately attracted by the study’s enormous potential after reading the report from Cohen and Boyer. Reimers took the initiative to find Cohen and Boyer and asked them to jointly apply for patents on the technology of gene cloning (Stanford University and UCSF also hold patents). Cohen and Boyer were both surprised by Reimers’ actions because they never thought that the recombinant DNA technology could be patented, nor did they think the technology might have great commercial value.
In the winter of 1974, Cohen and Boyer filed a patent application with the help of Reimers, although they were still very skeptical about the possibility of patent application for recombinant DNA technology. The news of the two patent applications soon spread to the ears of other scientists. Berg felt very angry about this and felt that the claims in the Cohen and Boyer patents were ridiculous because the claims in the patent stated that they had the commercial right to clone all DNA using this technology. Berg feels that their application for a patent is simply ridiculous. How can this technology, which was born out of public funds, be used to privatize interests through patent applications? Perhaps for many scientists at the time, such behavior did make them difficult to understand.
In the autumn of 1975, the affairs of the patent application had not yet been processed. Cohen and Boyer began to part ways on the road to science. The cooperation between them has been very pleasant. In five years they have co-published 11 important papers. However, over time, their interests have become increasingly different. Cohen later went on to consult with Cetus, a biotech company in California (Cetus was supposed to be the first bioengineering professional company, but Genentech is generally considered to be the first biotechnology company in history), and Boyer returned to UCSF. The laboratory continues to focus on experimental research of recombinant DNA.
In the winter of 1975, Boyer received a phone call from a young venture capitalist, Robert Swanson. Swanson hopes that Boyer can schedule a meeting. Although Swanson is not a scientist, he was very fond of reading science magazines and sci-fi movies. He also heard of this new technology called recombinant DNA. Swanson is naturally keen on new technology. Although he does not understand biology, he still feels that the emergence of recombinant DNA technology can completely change people’s thinking about genetics and genetics.
Swanson looked up the list of participants from the Asilomar conference handbook and screened out important scientists in the field of gene cloning and made a new list in alphabetical order. In this list Berg is in front of Boyer, but Berg has no patience with the investors who have rushed to call his office and has bluntly rejected the Swanson interview request.
Swanson did not lose heart. He called Boyer according to the order in the list. Boyer was immersed in the experiment and did not have much time for Swanson, but he promised to take 10 minutes to meet him.
In January 1976, Swanson went to Boyer’s lab to meet with him. Swanson walked into Boyer’s lab in a neat black suit, looking through the mountain of reagents, dishes, and instruments and finally saw Boyer, a scientist in a leather vest and jeans.
Boyer does not understand Swanson. He only knows that he is a venture capitalist and wants to establish a company with him based on recombinant DNA technology. If Boyer carefully investigates this venture capitalist, he will not promise to meet Swanson because Swanson’s almost all investment projects failed and he was unemployed. He rented a shabby apartment in San Francisco. There was a cheap Datsun in the car, and lunch and dinner were only available for sandwiches. In spite of this, Boyer and Swanson talked about each other. They obviously are not satisfied with the originally planned 10-minute interview time.
Left: Herbert Boyer; Right: Robert Swanson
They walked into a bar at Inner Sunset near the school to discuss the future of recombinant DNA technology and biology. Swanson proposes to set up a company to use recombinant DNA technology to produce drugs. For Boyer, the idea is really appealing. His son has growth and development problems. Before long, he knew very well that it would be possible to produce large quantities of growth hormone using recombinant DNA technology. But even if there is any use for ideas, no one is willing to inject their children with bacterial extracts obtained from laboratory petri dishes. To produce drugs, he must set up a new type of pharmaceutical company, a company that uses genetic technology to produce drugs.
After three hours of talks and several beers, Swanson and Boyer reached a preliminary agreement. They decided to invest 500 U.S. dollars each to pay for the company’s establishment. Swanson later wrote a six-page business plan and found his former employer, Kleiner Perkins, hoping that his company could invest up to 500,000 US dollars as startup capital for the new company. Perkins took a rough look at Swanson’s plan and cut the amount to one-fifth, which is $100,000. Although this is not a big investment, fortunately Boyer and Swanson now have everything a new company needs, except for a drug that can be listed and the name of the new company.
It’s easy to find out where the company can go into disease, and almost everyone will first think of using recombinant DNA technology to produce insulin. In the decades since the birth of recombinant DNA technology, researchers have tried many strategies to synthesize insulin, but the main source of insulin is still the viscera of crushed cattle or pigs. The production of one kilogram of insulin requires nearly 8,000 kilograms of pancreas. This method of extraction is inefficient and expensive. If Boyer and Swanson can use recombinant DNA technology to express insulin in cells, then this method is not only enough to support the future development of this new company, but also will become a landmark event in the history of the pharmaceutical industry.
As for the company’s name, Boyer rejected Swanson’s proposal: HerBob, because this name sounds really like a hair salon. He proposed to use the acronym of Genetic Engineering TECHnology: Gen-en-tech.