Life guard: Cancer-fighting alumnus earns UW’s top alumni award

Art Levinson, the driving force behind several cancer-fighting drugs, is the 2014 Alumnus Summa Laude Dignatus, the highest award bestowed upon UW alumni.

The word 'respected' is used so often in describing Art Levinson that it appears to be part of his name. For his efforts in redefining the biotechnology industry, he has earned yet another designation: the 2014 Alumnus Summa Laude Dignatus, the highest award bestowed upon University of Washington graduates.

As both scientist and CEO, Levinson, ’72, has been a driving force behind cancer-fighting drugs like Avastin, Tarceva and Herceptin. He established his reputation during a long career at Genentech, which he joined in 1980 as a research scientist. He later served as chief executive officer from 1995 to 2009. While doggedly avoiding the spotlight, he continues to demonstrate his profound leadership as chairman of Genentech, chairman of Apple Inc., and CEO of Calico, a startup that focuses on aging.

Levinson grew up in Seattle—fed a steady diet of books by a librarian uncle—and attended Roosevelt High School, but was initially overwhelmed by the UW’s size. “I couldn’t find or pronounce most of the buildings for the first few weeks,” he notes. The talent and dedication of his professors quickly impressed him, yet he struggled to find his niche. Carl Sagan and I.S. Shklovskii’s Intelligent Life in the Universe, which he read before his junior year, proved to be his beacon. Levinson was always interested in astronomy, but the book’s exploration of life at a molecular level inspired him.

Soon, Levinson was working with professors to craft a major based on genetics and molecular biology. He took a genetics course from Professor Leland Hartwell, who would go on to become the president and director of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and win a 2001 Nobel Prize. More notably, he began working in a research lab, which at the time was nearly unheard of for an undergraduate. Working with Professor John Keller, Levinson examined the differences between normal and cancerous cells. The vague notions Levinson held about attending medical school had transformed into a concrete desire to be a scientist.

After graduating from UW, Levinson earned a Ph.D. in Biochemical Science at Princeton. He followed that with a postdoctoral post at the University of California, San Francisco, in the lab of Michael Bishop and Harold Varmus, who both would go on to win the Nobel Prize for their oncology research. When former UCSF Professor Herb Boyer recruited him to his startup, Genentech, Levinson thought he would detour for a year or two to learn about recombinant DNA before returning to academia.

The unexpected level of freedom he found in Genentech’s labs, however, kept him firmly planted. He made his mark early in his career there by carrying out research on genes and proteins that were subsequently determined to be important drivers of human cancer, improving the method of manufacturing biotech drugs. Instead of the standard practice of growing proteins in bacteria cells, Levinson demonstrated the scientific advantages—and, eventually, the economic feasibility—of making them in mammalian cells, namely Chinese hamster ovarian cells. He would continue to establish his bona fides as a scientist; Levinson is author or co-author of more than 80 scientific articles and inventor on 11 U.S. patents.

Art is an extremely strong scientist, but he doesn’t feel the need to announce it. He really listens, and that is what sets him apart.

David Botstein, geneticist

His next feat was perhaps even more impressive: successfully transitioning from the lab to leadership. Just five years after being coaxed into a role as vice president of research in 1990, Levinson was named CEO of Genentech. His business acumen was remarkable, but it was the culture he created that allowed the company to soar. Scientists were afforded the opportunity to pursue independent research projects and took their cues from their casual and irreverent boss.

Not only in the lab are his employees encouraged to challenge assumptions. “If I go more than two weeks without someone telling me that I’m full of it, I start to worry,” he explains. The key to Levinson’s success is simple, according to geneticist David Botstein, who has known him for more than 30 years. “Art is an extremely strong scientist, but he doesn’t feel the need to announce it,” says Botstein. “He really listens, and that is what sets him apart.”

Accolades for his leadership have piled up. He was inducted into the Biotech Hall of Fame in 2003. Institutional Investor named him “America’s Best CEO” in biotech four straight years (2004-07) and Business Week listed him on its “Best Managers of the Year” in 2004 and 2005. Barron’s ranked him as one of “The World’s Most Respected CEOs” in 2006. The American Academy of Arts & Sciences elected him a Fellow in 2008. Leaders in other industries also noticed his prowess. He was tapped by his friend Steve Jobs to join the Apple board in 2000 and served as co-lead director with him from 2005 until Jobs’ death in 2011, at which time Levinson became chairman.

While this would seem like a convenient time for Levinson to focus on his tennis game, he is instead embarking on a grand venture. In late 2013, he was introduced as co-founder and CEO of Calico, a Google affiliate devoted to healthy aging. While the company has been glibly referred to in the media as ‘solving’ or ‘defeating’ death, Levinson is really seeking a better understanding of our biological clock. Though not afraid to aim for a “moonshot” advance, he explains that success for Calico is about managing therapeutics “to not just increase life span, but lengthen it in a healthy state.”

In assembling his team at Calico, Levinson has chosen top scientists, including Botstein, who do not necessarily have a deep background in aging-related medicine. Instead, Levinson has again defied expectations and stuck to a mantra that has benefited him, and countless others: good science yields results.