Arthur D. Levinson

Arthur D. Levinson
Arthur D. Levinson
  • From:

    Calico Life Sciences LLC│ South San Francisco, California

  • Year:


  • Subject:


  • Award:

    Bower Award for Business Leadership

  • Citation:

    For his innovative leadership building Genentech into a global biotechnology pioneer, his strategic guidance of Apple, and his commitment to advancing human health and longevity at Calico—a distinguished career that exemplifies the spirit of scientific inquiry and entrepreneurship embodied by Benjamin Franklin.

From scientist to CEO, Arthur Levinson knows how to culture innovation. His research expertise, combined with his leadership skills, led him from Ph.D. scientist to Genentech CEO in just 15 years. As CEO at Genentech, Levinson guided the research, development, and eventual marketing of revolutionary drugs, including the first genetically-targeted cancer drug, Herceptin. Levinson also serves on Apple Inc.’s board, where his insights and experience with Apple’s visionary founder, Steve Jobs, made him the logical candidate to step in as chairman of the board after Jobs’s death. In 2013, Levinson became founder and CEO of Calico Life Sciences LLC, a research and development company focused on aging and age-related diseases funded by Google’s parent company and startup incubator, Alphabet Inc. Levinson, named on 11 patents and co-author of more than 80 research articles, also serves on the boards of scientific frontrunners like the Broad Institute, MIT and Harvard’s joint biomedical research powerhouse. Levinson is renowned for his strategic entrepreneurship and creativity, as he leads companies with integrity and an unwavering commitment to advancing human health.

Levinson’s fascination with life at the molecular level began as a result of reading Carl Sagan’s Intelligent Life in the Universe during his college yearsHe pursued genetics and biochemistry at the University of Washington, zeroing in on cancer biology. Graduating in 1972, Levinson chose Princeton for a doctorate in biochemistry. For his postdoctoral fellowship, he landed a spot in the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) lab of J. Michael Bishop and Harold Varmus, who honed Levinson’s focus on tumor biology. Among other findings, Levinson co-discovered that the product of the viral src oncogene was a protein kinase, for the first time assigning an enzymatic function to a tumor antigen. Bishop and Varmus would go on to win the 1986 Nobel Prize in Medicine for their identification of proto-oncogenes, but by then Levinson had been recruited to a tiny start-up called Genentech by biotech pioneer, and former UCSF professor, Herbert Boyer and venture capitalist Bob Swanson. 

At Genentech, Levinson was surprised to discover that a private company would allow him the freedom to pursue his own research interest in how mammalian cells could be used to produce desirable proteins. Reviewing the company’s research and development portfolio, an executive questioned the necessity of Levinson’s work. There were existing protocols for using bacteria to make proteins, it was noted, and quite cheaply at that. Levinson explained that bacteria would have a difficult time making many proteins encoded by human genes, a prediction which turned out to be correct for many therapeutically important proteins. Today, Levinson’s research breakthrough in modifying mammalian cells, including Chinese Hamster Ovary (CHO) cells, to be used as protein factories is used industry-wide, and was crucial in Genentech’s—and more broadly the industry’s—success.

Levinson became known for his amiability and his scientific no-nonsense approach at Genentech. A story in Fortune magazine described him as having "an appealing mix of nerdiness, candor, and jocularity." He received promotion after promotion which increased his leadership responsibilities, while holding on to his lab whose scientific focus remained rooted in the identification and characterization of human cancer genes. When he first became vice president for research in 1990, Levinson reshaped Genentech’s already successful research culture by dramatically reducing the number of projects each researcher was required to work on while allowing a quarter of their time to be spent pursuing their own research interests. Levinson believed that while many scientists will ably do what they are told, great scientists would do what they thought was most promising, and take on important challenges. But Levinson coupled this new freedom with a stringent research review process.

In 1995, Levinson gave up his own lab to become Genentech CEO. During his tenure as CEO from 1995 to 2009, Genentech brought a remarkable number of new drugs to market, including the breakthrough targeted breast cancer therapy, Herceptin. Herceptin was a completely new kind of medicine—a complex protein, 800 times larger than an aspirin molecule, which bound to HER2 receptors on breast cancer cells to block them from sending growth signals. It was also the first “personalized” medicine, paired with diagnostic tests to determine if a patient’s tumor was HER2-positive. Many companies would not have aimed for a HER2-targeted treatment, as it only affects a minority of breast-cancer patients, but Levinson was not afraid of having a smaller market for a highly effective medication. Under his leadership, Genentech became much larger, spent aggressively on research and development while competing with industry giants, and increased its market value by more than 20-fold. By 2004, Genentech was the world leader in anti-tumor drug sales. In 2009, Genentech was acquired by Hoffmann-La Roche, already a major investor in the company.

Levinson oversaw the transition to Roche ownership, but in 2011, he fielded a call from a different company with a revolutionary approach to technology—Apple Inc. Levinson had served on the Apple board of directors since 2000. When Steve Jobs learned of his cancer in 2003, Levinson was one of the first people he turned to. In October 2011, Jobs succumbed to pancreatic cancer. Apple CEO Tim Cook and the board turned to Levinson and asked him to become chairman. Through all the many positions he has held, Levinson quips that he has long been guided by the philosophy of “In God we trust. Everyone else please bring data.” 

Levinson continued on the Hoffmann-La Roche board of directors until 2014, but had already stepped into the CEO role again at yet another startup in 2013 when he founded Calico—funded in large part by Alphabet Inc., Google’s parent company. Calico is a research and development biotech company focused on the biology of aging and age-related diseases, including cancer and neurodegenerative diseases. 

Arthur Levinson held onto his research lab as long as he could, but his work at the bench was steadily eclipsed by his evident talent as a manager of technological revolutions. Today as a board member, chief executive, or general wise person, Levinson sits in the inner circle of a staggering array of revolutionary organizations, guiding them with his ultimate goal of improving our health. 

Information as of March 2020