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George Rathmann
 
George Rathmann
Profile of George Rathmann Biography of George Rathmann Interview with George Rathmann George Rathmann Photo Gallery

George Rathmann Biography

Founding Chairman, Amgen

George Rathmann Date of birth: December 25, 1927
Date of death: April 22, 2012

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  George Rathmann

George Blatz Rathmann was born on Christmas Day in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The youngest of four children, his father was a businessman, his mother a member of a prominent Milwaukee brewing family. From an early age, George Rathmann enjoyed science, and was inspired by an older brother and brother-in-law who were both chemists. After exhausting the resources of his first chemistry set, he pursued an interest in "blowing things up," as he put it, and by high school, was putting on shows with his homemade fireworks.

He was further encouraged by his chemistry teacher at Milwaukee University High School, where he met his future wife, Joy. He also showed the first signs of taste for business, when he grew a gardenia tree and tried to sell gardenias to his friends and neighbors.

After high school, Rathmann entered Northwestern University in Chicago, intending to follow a pre-med course. At Northwestern, he enjoyed excellent relationships with a number of inspiring professors: Frederick Bordwell, Irving M. Klotz and Fred Basolo. His senior adviser, chemistry professor Robert Burwell, suggested that rather than proceeding to medical school, Rathmann pursue a doctorate in physical chemistry at Burwell's alma mater, Princeton University. After completing his undergraduate chemistry degree in only three years, Rathmann followed Burwell's suggestion and went to Princeton for graduate study, lured in part by the presence of the legendary Albert Einstein, a Fellow of Princeton's of the Institute for Advanced Study.

At Princeton, Rathmann wrote his dissertation on the scattering of light by polymers. He became intrigued by Scotchlite, a reflective substance recently developed by 3M. By the time he finished his doctorate in 1952 he had landed a job at 3M in St. Paul, Minnesota. Settled once again in the Upper Midwest, Rathmann and Joy were married and started a family.

Rathmann would stay at 3M for over 20 years, rising from junior scientist to corporate manager. A laboratory accident led to the development of one of the most successful products Rathmann would oversee at 3M. One day, a small sample of a chemical his lab was working on fell on a lab technician's tennis shoe. Day after day, it resisted all efforts to wash it off, and Rathmann knew they were on to something. The stubborn polymer became the basis of Scotchgard, best known as a spray-on coating that protects upholstery from oil and moisture. In time, Scotchgard would develop into a line of roughly 100 products, and as an additive in many commercial textiles. A related chemical was licensed to DuPont as a component of Teflon. At the time of George Rathmann's interview with the Academy of Achievement in 2000, Scotchgard had been taken off the market for safety reasons, but it returned to store shelves and the factory floor only three years later, after modifications to the formula.

George Rathmann Biography Photo
From his success with Scotchgard, Rathmann moved from research to management, overseeing development of rocket propellants and photographic film. When 3M collaborated with Litton Industries in the production and marketing of a new x-ray film, Rathmann was eager to become involved in the marketing of the product, and in 1972 he left 3M and returned to his native Milwaukee to become President of Litton Industries' Medical Systems division. Rathmann's tenure at Litton was a brief one. After three years there, he joined Abbott Laboratories in Chicago, as Vice President of Research and Development in the Diagnostics Division. At the time, diagnostics generated almost no revenue for the company, but at the end of Rathmann's eight-year tenure there, it was bringing in a billion dollars a year.

At Abbott Laboratories, Rathmann created new diagnostics for spina bifida, cardiovascular disorders, and infectious diseases, including hepatitis B. The work with hepatitis diagnosis led to work with vaccines. Hoping to improve on a vaccine made with a weakened form of the hepatitis virus, Rathmann began to explore the possibility of creating a synthetic antigen. Although Abbott did not proceed with development of a synthetic vaccine, Rathmann became fascinated with the emerging field of biotechnology. With the newly available recombinant DNA technology, it had become possible to create new proteins by modifying living organisms, a technique with seemingly limitless diagnostic and therapeutic potential.

Rathmann's investigations led him to Winston Salser, a professor of molecular biology from the University of California at Los Angeles. Salser had gathered a scientific advisory board to plan the creation of a new biotechnology company, Applied Molecular Genetics, or Amgen. Salser and his investors were looking for a chief executive to lead the company. The leader they sought would need to be both a scientist and an experienced businessperson, and they believed Rathmann was the leader they were looking for. Excited by the possibilities, Rathmann agreed to serve as the company's founding President and CEO.

When Rathmann announced his plans to his superiors at Abbott, they offered to buy a controlling interest in the new company, but Rathmann felt that would impair the flexibility Amgen would need to compete with the other biotech start-ups. Instead, he won a $5 million investment from Abbott for a minority stake. With this commitment from Abbott, he was able to approach venture capitalists and raise a total of $19 million, a record at the time for a biotech start-up. The new company was based in Thousand Oaks, California to take advantage of the pool of biotech talent emerging from UCLA and other institutions. After spending virtually their entire lives in the Midwest, the Rathmanns made the move to Southern California and a new life.

George Rathmann Biography Photo
At age 53, Rathmann was older than the typical start-up entrepreneur, but at six-foot-five, he was an imposing physical presence, and he proved to be a charismatic and visionary leader. He worked hard to create a family atmosphere at Amgen, hosting company parties and picnics at his own home. He kept his own salary low, taking most of his compensation in stock options to prove he was fully invested in the long-term success of the company. The first years were difficult. One research project after another failed to produce a marketable product. Among other projects, the company synthesized a chicken growth hormone, an interferon product, and a means of manufacturing rare blue indigo dye from e-coli bacteria, but for different reasons, none of these met the needs of the marketplace.

The turnaround began in 1983, with the unexpected success of one of the start-up's most challenging projects, the search for the gene responsible for the production of the hormone erythropoietin (EPO). Produced in tiny quantities in the kidneys, this hormone travels through the bloodstream to the bone marrow, where it stimulates the production of erythrocytes -- red blood cells. Patients with malfunctioning kidneys often suffer from anemia, because their kidneys are not producing sufficient erythropoietin. In addition to dialysis treatments to cleanse their blood of toxins, these patients must replenish their red blood cells with frequent blood transfusions, raising the risk of infection.

George Rathmann Biography Photo
The existence of the hormone had been known since early in the 20th century, but efforts to capture it for research purposes had long proved elusive, because the kidneys produce it in such very small quantities. Finding the one gene in the entire human genome that is responsible for its production proved staggeringly difficult. The human chromosome contains 100,000 genes, each made of thousands of nucleotides. Other companies were searching for the EPO gene, without success. The expense of the project caused many at Amgen to urge abandonment of the project, but Rathmann was willing to see it through, betting on the persistence of his head researcher, Taiwan-born Fu-Kuen Lin.

After years of painstaking work, Lin and his team identified the gene that enables the kidneys to produce erythropoietin. Once the gene was identified, the work of synthesizing the hormone and producing a usable therapeutic drug, began. Clinical trials started at the end of 1985, and in 1989, the FDA granted approval for the new drug, Epoetein alfa, to be sold under the trade name Epogen.

Since it was introduced, Epogen has spared hundreds of thousands of anemic patients from expensive transfusions and the associated risk of infection. With Epogen, many dialysis patients return to energy levels they have not known since before their illness. Epogen has proved useful in other cases as well, such as combating the anemias caused by chemotherapy, or by the anti-HIV drug AZT. On behalf of Amgen, Dr. Rathmann accepted the Gift of Life Award from the Illinois Chapter of the National Kidney Foundation as well as the Annual Recognition Award of the Washington, D.C. National Kidney Foundation. Under Rathmann's leadership, Amgen also developed the drug filgrastim, to boost the production of white blood cells in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. Under the trade name Neupogen, it became available in 1991.

Since taking the helm of Amgen, George Rathmann had emerged as one of the biotech industry's undisputed leaders and spokesmen. Biotech observers compared his role in biotechnology to that of Henry Ford in the automobile industry. He was a founding member of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, and served as its Chairman from 1987-88.

On retiring from Amgen in 1990, Rathmann became CEO of ICOS, a new biotechnology company based in the Seattle area. Nicknamed "Golden Throat" for his persuasive fundraising abilities, Rathmann outdid himself with his new venture. On the eve of the first ICOS offering, he invited Microsoft chief Bill Gates to dinner, and by the end of the evening, Gates had written a check for $5 million. With Gates in, other investors quickly jumped on board, and Rathmann broke the record he set at Amgen by raising $32 million for ICOS in the first offering. Gates alone would invest more than $17 million in the first year. At ICOS, Rathmann initially focused on developing medicines to treat chronic inflammatory diseases, such as asthma, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis, but the company enjoyed its greatest success with the erectile-dysfunction drug Cialis.

After retiring from ICOS, he endowed the Rathmann Family Foundation, to fund education, scientific research and the arts in the many communities where the Rathmanns and their children live, including St. Paul, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Seattle and the San Francisco Bay area. At age 72, George Rathmann came out of retirement once again to chair his third and final biotech start-up, Hyseq Inc,. in Sunnyvale, California.

George Rathmann Biography Photo
During his lifetime, Dr. Rathmann received national recognition for his accomplishments, including the Glen Seaborg Medal from UCLA, the Bower Award for Business Leadership at the Franklin Institute, and the James Madison Medal of Princeton University. His alma mater, Northwestern University, created a named professorship in his honor. At the invitation of Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown, Rathmann established the National Science & Technology Medals Foundation, to highlight the achievements of the nation's most honored scientists, the recipients of the Presidential Medal of Science and the Presidential Medal of Technology.

In his last years, George Rathmann suffered from kidney failure, the very ailment he had done so much to combat. He died in Palo Alto, California, at the age of 84. At the time of his death in 2012, the prescription drugs developed at his start-ups were producing annual sales of some $9 billion. He was survived by Joy, his wife of over 62 years, and by their five children and 13 grandchildren.




This page last revised on Mar 07, 2013 18:57 EDT
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