Henri Termeer, key biotech leader who built Genzyme into an industry giant, dead at 71
Biotechnology in Massachusetts was taking its first tentative steps from laboratories into the business world when Henri A. Termeer joined Genzyme in the early 1980s.
Before it became an anchor of Cambridge’s life sciences cluster in Kendall Square, Genzyme had its offices in a warehouse at the edge of the Combat Zone — “the most romantic of neighborhoods,” Mr. Termeer would later wryly say of Boston’s former red light district.
A founding father of the biotech industry, Mr. Termeer was 71 when he died after collapsing in his Marblehead home late Friday night. He had led Genzyme from 1983 to 2011, the year French drug giant Sanofi SA bought the company for more than $20 billion.
With magnetism and warmth, and a deft ability to harness top talent toward a common goal, he guided Genzyme to worldwide prominence while helping shape the emerging industry. Pioneering a patient-centric corporate culture, he designed a much-imitated business model that would spawn hundreds of rare disease medicines.
“He was the dean of the biotech community,” said Dr. David Meeker, president of Sanofi Genzyme and one of the scores of industry executives and entrepreneurs who consider the former Genzyme chief executive their mentor.
“His vision was to cure rare diseases, and he always had time to meet with the people dependent on our treatments,” Meeker said. “He had the ability to forge such an intense relationship with everyone he met, and he made everyone in the industry feel like he cared about them as an individual.”
By combining business acumen and personal connection, Mr. Termeer was a key leader in the biotech revolution that placed Massachusetts at the nexus of cutting-edge research and development. DNA sequencing had opened pathways to treating diseases — and new opportunities for emerging companies buoyed and inspired by Genzyme’s success.
“For him, it was all about the mission: advancing science and trying to make the world a better place,” said Dr. Peter Slavin, president of Massachusetts General Hospital.
A few months after Mr. Termeer left Genzyme, he donated $10 million to launch the Henri and Belinda Termeer Center for Targeted Therapies at Mass. General and was on the hospital’s board of trustees.
“He was one of the most thoughtful, intelligent, and principled trustees I’ve ever worked with,” Slavin said, “and he had a big heart.”
Mr. Termeer was “a true visionary and an exemplary leader,” Bob Coughlin, president of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, said in a statement.
“As one of the founders of the modern biotech industry, Henri has changed the lives of patients around the world through his ongoing dedication to discovering breakthrough treatments for those with rare diseases,” Coughlin said. “Without Henri and Genzyme, Massachusetts would not have grown into the best biotech hub in the world.”
In 2011, the day after Mr. Termeer formally turned over his Kendall Square office and stepped aside from leading Genzyme, he told the Globe: “It’s not the end of an era. It’s the end of a chapter. It’s a new beginning.”
Never breaking stride as an industry leader, he assisted with the transition for his Genzyme successors and continued with work he had begun elsewhere in the field.
During his nearly three decades running Genzyme, and in the years after, Mr. Termeer served on the boards of numerous biotechs, among them the Massachusetts firms Abiomed and Lysosomal Therapeutics.
Mr. Termeer also was a leader in the nonprofit realm of health care research and policy and helped found the Network for Excellence in Health Innovation, a nonpartisan national health policy institute that is based in Cambridge.
“His vision and his passion and his stability in moving toward that true north of coming up with cures for orphan diseases really nourished everything he did in the nonprofit world,” said Wendy Everett, who was the institute’s first president and is now a special adviser to the group.
Orphan diseases affect relatively few people, but Genzyme made treating them profitable by setting prices high for insured patients. Many of the company’s drugs cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year per patient.
Wealthy after Sanofi bought Genzyme — Mr. Termeer held Genzyme shares worth at least $145.9 million and left with a $12.5 million severance package — he put his personal fortune to use in the field he helped create.
Research at the center he and his wife funded at Mass. General focuses on the genetic makeup of illnesses and rare kinds of tumors for which there have been few effective treatments. The center designs targeted therapies, which zero in on vulnerable points in the genetic makeup of tumors, disabling pathways that enable them to grow.
“I hope this will help Massachusetts be recognized globally as the knowledge center in targeted medicines,” Mr. Termeer told the Globe in September 2011, when his $10 million donation to Mass. General was announced. “This is a global effort, but Massachusetts has the responsibility to lead, to use the talents and capabilities it has built over many years.”
Mr. Termeer viewed Greater Boston as a central place for pathbreaking research, the nurturing of scientists, and the growth of biotech companies that could change the lives of ill patients around the world.
Everett recalled that Mr. Termeer had “this constant vision of saying: ‘We can do better. And here in New England, we have some of the smartest people on the planet, who should be working together to solve some of the intractable problems in health care.’ He had such a magnetism and warmth and ability to listen to people and find that sweet spot where he could bring all of us together.”
Mr. Termeer guided the early careers of many who went on to become industry leaders.
“Henri’s philosophy was to bring in high-potential people from all walks of life,” Gail Maderis, a former Genzyme executive who went on to run biotechs and an industry trade group in the San Francisco area, told the Globe in 2015. “There was a feeling that we were in a new industry and we could help shape it. And the cream rose to the top.”
Mr. Termeer, who also was a life member of the MIT Corporation — the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s board of trustees — spoke about the field’s nascent days in a 2011 interview with the Globe. In the early 1980s, “we had the beginnings of the biotechnology industry,” said Termeer, who had been working as an executive for health care conglomerate Baxter International in Southern California. “One day I got a call to visit whatever it was at Genzyme. And it was, of course, not much. It had the right ingredients. I liked that the direction hadn’t been really established. It was an open book. I could go where I wanted to go. I gave up my job, gave up half my income, and moved here.
“It was a shot in the dark, and it was magnificent.”
Caren Arnstein, a close associate of Mr. Termeer who served as Genzyme’s senior vice president for corporate affairs, said he hired her after learning her sister suffered from Gaucher disease, a rare genetic disorder that Genzyme developed a therapy to treat.
In pushing drug development forward, “he wouldn’t take no for an answer,” Arnstein recalled. “He always said if we can make a difference for people with these horrible diseases, we have to give them a chance to lead a normal life. And he didn’t just say it, he lived it.”
Born in the Netherlands, Mr. Termeer studied economics at the Nederlandse Economische Hogeschool, which is now part of Erasmus University Rotterdam. He graduated with a master’s in business administration in 1973 from the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia.
Founded in 1981, Genzyme was a fledgling company when Mr. Termeer joined the company. It grew from fewer than 20 employees in the year it was started to about 12,500 worldwide when it was sold. During those years, it won regulatory approval for a range of drugs to treat rare diseases. Thousands of patients globally were treated with Genzyme products, including the enzyme replacement therapies Cerezyme for Gaucher disease and Fabrazyme for Fabry disease. It also launched development of Lemtrada, a multiple sclerosis drug for which Sanofi won approval after the buyout.
At its outset, Genzyme was among the few biotech companies in Massachusetts. The 2005 opening of its Kendall Square corporate headquarters, Genzyme Center, highlighted the growth of the sector, helping spawn other startups and draw other biopharma players to the Boston area from across the country and abroad.
In 2009, a virus in Genzyme’s Allston plant, and subsequent contamination problems, prompted the company to halt production some of its drugs. The company’s stock price fell, attracting attention from activist investors such as billionaire business magnate Carl C. Icahn, who became Genzyme’s largest single shareholder.
Icahn pushed for Genzyme to be sold, which Mr. Termeer resisted until 2011, when Sanofi struck the $20.1 billion buyout — the second-largest in the history of the biotech industry.
Mr. Termeer’s survivors include his wife, Belinda, and their daughter, Adriana, of Marblehead; a son from a previous marriage, Nicholas, who lives in England; two sisters, Ineke of France and Marlies Verduijn of the Netherlands; and three brothers, Bert, Paul, Roel, all of the Netherlands.
Plans for a memorial service were not immediately available.
Looking back in 2011 on what he accomplished at Genzyme, Mr. Termeer told the Globe: “There’s nothing more powerful than being associated with a program that can truly change the direction of disease — when you look a patient in the eye and say, ‘We have something that may help.’ ”
When he first began leading a company that had its roots in a Combat Zone warehouse, “some of my friends would visit me and say: ‘He’s lost it. This is going to be such a disappointment after a while,’ ” he recalled.
“It was just pretty much a dream,” he added, “and today you can walk around Boston and Cambridge and find these dreams all over the place.”