Arthur Levinson

President and chief executive officer, Genentech

Nationality: American.

Born: March 31, 1950, in Seattle, Washington.

Education: University of Washington, BS, 1972; Princeton University, PhD, 1977.

Family: Son of Sol and Malvina Levinson; married Rita May Liff, December 17, 1978; children: two.

Career: Genentech, 1980–1987, senior research scientist; 1987–1989, director of Cell Genetics Department; 1989–1990, vice president of research technology; 1990–1993, vice president of research; 1993–1995, senior vice president; 1995–, president and CEO.

Awards: Corporate Leadership Award in Science, Irvington Institute, 1999; Corporate Leadership Award, National Breast Cancer Coalition, 1999; named one of the Best Managers of 2003, BusinessWeek .

Address: Genentech, 1 DNA Way, South San Francisco, California 94080-4990;

■ Arthur Levinson, a molecular biologist turned CEO, joined Genentech, a research-oriented biotechnology company, just before the company went public in 1980. He rapidly rose through the ranks to become president and CEO by 1995. His commitment to basic research and his motivation to create a company that was also able to turn a profit made Genentech a model company for the biotechnology industry and a recognized leader in selected pharmaceutical markets. Levinson relied on his scientific instincts as he manipulated Genentech, a relatively small company, to a leadership position among the highly competitive pharmaceutical giants.


Beginning in childhood, Levinson was motivated by the thrill of discovering how things work. An early influence was Carl Sagan's book Intelligent Life in the Universe , especially the last third of the volume, which covers the requirements for life at a molecular level. At the University of Washington Levinson took genetics and biochemistry courses. One course, in particular, excited him. In an interview published in Perspectives , a newsletter of the University of Washington College of Arts and Sciences (Autumn 2003), he said that at that point he knew that he would "be a scientist … [in] genetics and molecular biology." In an individually tailored undergraduate research program, he began studying the difference between cancerous cells and normal cells. By the early 2000s cancer research was one of the key focuses at Genentech, where blockbuster drugs to treat it were being developed.

After receiving a BS in molecular biology from the University of Washington in 1972, Levinson went to Princeton University, where he earned a PhD in biochemistry in 1977. He then took a postdoctoral position (1977–1980) at the Microbiology Department of the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) to work in the lab of J. Michael Bishop and Harold Varmus, winners of the 1989 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their discovery of certain viruses involved in converting normal genes into cancer-causing genes. In an article in BusinessWeek , Arlene Weintraub quotes Varmus, who describes Levinson as "an imaginative thinker with very broad technical interests."


In 1980 Herbert W. Boyer, a professor at UCSF and cofounder of Genentech, recruited Levinson to join the start-up company. Genentech, the world's only biotech company when it was formed in 1976, was dedicated to basic research. Levinson's original intent was to stay at Genentech just long enough to gain unique laboratory experiences and then return to academia.

While remaining committed to molecular biology research throughout his graduate education, Levinson taught himself about the stock market and dabbled in stocks to supplement his meager income as a college student, and his coworkers at Genentech considered him a financial whiz. When the company went public in October 1980, employees were offered a chance to buy two hundred shares each at a 15 percent discount. Levinson was the only researcher in the lab who had any experience with stocks, so he advised his coworkers to each buy all two hundred shares. When the stock immediately soared, Levinson advised them to sell, as he did. One scientist kept his stock but later lamented doing so, since Levinson clearly knew what he was talking about.

Levinson thrived in the work-hard and play-hard atmo sphere of the research labs at Genentech. Soon after joining the company, he found a better way to manufacture biotech drugs, but the accountants said his way was too costly. Convinced that he was right, Levinson went to higher management, who saw the merits of his discovery and told him to forge ahead. Levinson's method subsequently became the standard for the industry.


Although Levinson was described as "somewhat quirky" (in Weintraub's article in BusinessWeek ) and as "an appealing mix of "nerdiness, candor, and jocularity" (in an article by David Stipp in Fortune ), he fit well into the Genentech culture, and top management saw his lab experience and infectious enthusiasm for research as the attributes needed to lead a growing biotechnology company. He was promoted steadily through the ranks. One Genentech board member Franz B. Humer, described Levinson to Arlene Weintraub as understanding "the heart of this business."

Under Levinson's leadership, Genentech began examining research projects in detail to rate them based on scientific feasibility, medical need, market potential, market protection (that is, how many competing drugs were in the market), and manufacturing economy. His approach to directing the company did not shackle research or reduce its value to the company; rather, it targeted R&D based on criteria that gauged the potential for success. Levinson gave priority to developing new treatments in three areas: immunology, cancer, and vascular biology (blood vessels and their role in disease). Genentech distinguished itself from the competition by its science and its focused management.


Levinson was able to lead Genentech through challenges in drug development that most CEOs with less of a science background would not have attempted. When a potential breast cancer drug, Avastin, did not meet expectations, Levinson looked at the test results and saw that the drug was successful in treating colon cancer. One disappointment would normally have shelved the drug, but his scientific training prompted Levinson to invest more research dollars on the drug as a potential treatment for colon cancer. His controversial gamble proved to be sound. Although the drug had not yet received Food and Drug Administration approval by early 2004, many observers expected it to gain approval and become another blockbuster for the company. Under Levinson's leadership, Genentech competed with the international pharmaceutical giants in selected markets and showed that good science can be profitable. Genentech revenues climbed by almost 30 percent in nine months in 2003, to $2.4 billion.

See also entry on Genentech Inc. in International Directory of Company Histories .

sources for further information

"Arthur Levinson, Genentech," BusinessWeek , January 12, 2003.

"Leading Biotechnology into the 21st Century," A&S Perspectives (Summer 2000), .

Levinson, Arthur D., "For Success, Focus Your Strengths," Nature Biotechnology , 16 (May 1998), p. S45–46.

Stipp, David, "Biotech: How Genentech Got It," Fortune , May 27, 2003.

Weintraub, Arlene, "Genentech's Medicine Man," BusinessWeek , October 6, 2003.

—Miriam C. Nagel

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: