South of the City and hard by the shores of San Francisco Bay, Genentech rarely attracts the attention of the founders of flashy Internet startups as they drive past its offices on the way to the airport. But the biotech company's longtime CEO, Art Levinson, is an integral part of the Silicon Valley scene, serving on the boards of both Google and Apple. That's why Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche's move to buy the 44 percent of Genentech it doesn't already own for a price north of $38 billion could have reverbations well beyond the world of automated pipetting systems.
Why is Roche rocking the boat? Its stake in Genentech already provides a large part of its earnings; owning all of Genentech would maximize Roche's take. But this could be a classic case of killing the goose that lays the golden egg. Genentech's top scientists are already wealthy from stock options; loyalty to Levinson is mostly what's keeping them at the company, writes the In Vivo biotech blog. And Levinson, who has already been at the company for 28 years, is likely to walk if Roche's buyout goes through.
That could be very good for Bay Area biotech startups, and the venture capitalists who fund them. Unlike today's Web startups, which are frustratingly cheap to launch, biotech ventures require real money, which means VCs have something to offer. An exodus of talent from Genentech could turbocharge the sector.
And what of Levinson himself? He could well expand his role at Google. Both Larry Page and Sergey Brin, tellingly, are married to women with biotech backgrounds, and have a fascination with the subject. They see the human genome as just another part of the world's information, which they've made it their mission to organize. Could Levinson become part of Larry and Sergey's intellectual petting zoo — like Vint Cerf, the father of the Internet? It sounds like a better gig than sitting in an office in South San Francisco taking orders from the Swiss.