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Kirk Raab, first BIO chair and early Genentech CEO, dies at 85

Fifty year biopharma vet helped guide more than 20 companies

Across more than 50 years in biopharma, Kirk Raab helped guide over 20 companies and pioneer the way biotech companies sell their drugs today.

Jan 29, 2021 | 3:48 AM GMT

G. Kirk Raab, who led Genentech at a pivotal point in the company’s history and helped put biotech on the map in Washington, passed away Jan. 21 due to complications from COVID. He was 85.

Across more than 50 years in biopharma, Raab helped guide more than 20 companies and pioneer the way biotech companies sell their drugs today.

Although he rose to the top rungs of industry, Raab was not a scientist. After a two-year stint with the U.S. Army stationed in Germany, he graduated with honors in Fine Arts and Political Science from Colgate in 1959, before joining Pfizer Inc. (NYSE:PFE) as a salesman.

The commercial chops that he honed at Pfizer and in the years to come at Beecham Group, Abbott Laboratories (NYSE:ABT) and, as a board member, at Amgen Inc. (NASDAQ:AMGN) would land him a job at Genentech Inc. in 1985 as president, COO and a member of the board. In 1990, he became CEO, succeeding Genentech’s founding CEO, Robert Swanson, who had held the position from the company’s launch in 1976.

“I’ve spent enough time living and working on a battleship. I’d like to be on a speedboat,” Raab told his children before taking the job in 1985, according to an oral history conducted in 2002 by Glenn E. Bugos for the Bancroft Library’s Regional Oral History Office at the University of California Berkeley. 

Genentech was nine years old when he joined, and the company’s board sought someone with Raab’s experience to grow. 

Within nine months of his arrival, FDA approved the company’s first therapy, Protropin somatrem, a recombinant human growth hormone to treat short stature.

“So many things at Genentech had been established in principle,” Raab told Bugos. “My job was to make them happen as we grew dramatically in size, by hiring quality people.”

Raab’s first move in his new role was sparked by a discussion during his interview process with Chairman Tom Perkins, who according to Raab was not enthusiastic at first about hiring him due to a past rivalry while he was at Abbott.

Raab persuaded Perkins of the need to restart construction of its facility to manufacture tissue  plasminogen activator (tPA) even though the company did not yet know if the CV drug would work. For a biologic, Raab had explained, the manufacturing facility had to be approved before its accompanying drug could gain marketing authorization.

“You really could change the name of the company to tPA, Incorporated. That’s why I would join,” Raab told Perkins, according to the Bugos interview. “Tom, if we don’t have tPA, we don’t have a company.”

Restarting the factory when Genentech did saved “years” in tPA’s approval, according to Raab.

In addition to helping push tPA (Activase alteplase) over the goal line in 1987 after an initial setback before an FDA advisory committee, Raab presided over the establishment of new facilities in South San Francisco and the hiring of thousands of employees. He also engineered the company’s original tie-up with Roche (SIX:ROG; OTCQX:RHHBY) in 1990. 

By the end of his tenure the company had a half dozen drugs approved and its signature cancer drugs, such as Rituxan rituximab and Herceptin trastuzumab, had begun to move through the pipeline.

One of Raab’s biggest contributions to Genentech and arguably the industry in general was the commercial organization he built, according to his son Mike Raab, who is president and CEO of Ardelyx Inc. (NASDAQ:ARDX).

Raab said Genentech’s sales team comprised seasoned commercial people who could speak to the science and clinical data for a drug they were selling, knowing more about the disease and the therapy than the clinician might know.

“They built what became one of the most incredible commercial organizations because they did it a totally different way,” Mike Raab told BioCentury. “Many companies now, whether they know it or not, modeled their commercial approach for biotech drugs after what Genentech originally did with their first roughly 20 salespeople that were there for human growth hormone.”

He noted that Henri Termeer’s Genzyme Corp., where the younger Raab worked early in his career, was one of those companies, as is his current company.

Indeed, Raab said Genzyme “poached a good half dozen” people from Genentech to sell Cerezyme imiglucerase and Ceredase alglucerase.

Mike Raab said the most important lesson he learned from his father about running a biotech was to have humility.

“It’s going to be strange for some people to hear this because he did not always come off this way: humility, absolute humility, not only for the people that are scientists, and understanding and respecting what it is that they said and believed,” said Mike Raab. He added that his father also emphasized “the humility that we need to have as leaders in this industry as stewards of trying to find cures or medicines to help patients who are desperate and hurting and sick.”

This was underscored in Kirk Raab’s conversation with Bugos.

“It’s important to repeat here again that I didn’t do anything at Genentech, or Abbott, by myself. The best thing I did was to get and keep a lot of great people. But I was the president, and it was pretty small at the beginning, and I was intimately involved in most everything. We had some outstanding people in sales and marketing. Jim Gower was in charge, with Dick Brewer and John Rehr in marketing and Gary Lyons, Ed Jennings, and Kim Popovits in sales management. They were, and are, great and most are CEOs today.”

Policy pioneer

In the early 1990s, Raab was also the most visible biotech executive on the public policy forefront. As the first chair of BIO, he worked with Carl Feldbaum, the trade group’s first president, to raise awareness of the fledgling industry’s potential to create jobs and deliver therapies and cures by calling on countless lawmakers in Congress.

“Kirk was the perfect partner and a true buccaneer,” Feldbaum told BioCentury. “Big pharma didn’t take biotech or BIO seriously.  We did together everything short of raising the Jolly Roger flag on our tiny pirate ship back then. He believed in biotech’s future. Period.” 

In addition to Mike Raab, Kirk Raab is survived by his wife, Maryann; his five other children — Kristina Strand (Brad), Alyson Bailey (Bill), Dean Raab, Julia Raab, and stepdaughter Andrea Leggett  (Darren) — and his many grandchildren.

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