Published: Jan. 31, 2021

Portrait of Dr. David GoeddelDr. David Goeddel is former head of Genentech’s microbiology department, CU Biochemistry alum Class of ‘77, and the scientist behind the first commercially viable insulin biosynthesis pipeline in human history. Today, Dr. Goeddel continues to drive innovation as a managing partner of The Column Group, a venture capitalist firm aimed at funding disruptive technology in the biosciences.

One of the greatest technical scientists behind the ascendancy of gene-editing giant Genentech, Dr. Goeddel began his biochemistry career here at CU Boulder as a Ph.D. student under Dr. Marvin Caruthers. Dr. Goeddel’s undergraduate period was, as he describes it, “wasted surfing,” though he did manage a semester of research under the renowned physical chemist Bruno Zimm at the University of California San Diego. Luckily, Dr. Goeddel had joined CU Biochemistry in the perfect year: 1973. As a new member of CU Biochemistry’s faculty, Dr. Marvin Caruthers was doing just this sort of research and was accepting his first graduate students. As a “sports-first” undergrad, Dr. Goeddel had originally picked Boulder with hopes of competing as a professional rock climber, but he quickly became enamored with the emerging field of DNA synthesis, and later, gene-editing.

Breakthroughs in the Caruthers Lab

Dr. Goeddel joined the Caruthers Lab where he would learn foundational gene-cloning and DNA manipulation techniques that would prove integral to his future achievements. From Dr. Goeddel’s perspective, the timing could not have been more fortuitous; Dr. Caruthers proved to be an excellent resource for the burgeoning biochemist in Dr. Goeddel. Recombinant gene cloning was a recent breakthrough, and the Caruthers Lab quickly positioned themselves with the reagents and synthetic DNA primers needed to translate these techniques into therapeutic innovation. Goeddel set to work learning to synthesize DNA template strands using everything he had learned of physical chemistry as an undergrad.

Dr. Goeddel remembers his time in the Caruthers Lab fondly. He and his lab mates became a close unit, playing intramural basketball and football together, even giving everyone in the lab nicknames:

Everyone in Marv’s lab had a nickname. Marv could never figure out who was who. He was The Duke, but we also had Shortcake, Dishman, and Barnie Rubble who of course looked just like the cartoon character.

Though there were one or two undergraduate student rotations each year, Dr. Caruthers had an otherwise open schedule, a huge boon for his motivated graduate students. Goeddel and his lab mates got plenty of individualized mentorship from their PI, with Dr. Caruthers personally assisting with experiments. According to Dr. Goeddel, Marv allowed his students near total independence, but his expectation of results could be exacting.

Overcoming an Academic Speedbump

Unfortunately, pesky academics reared their head just as Dr. Goeddel had found his passion. He was climbing the Flatirons less and less, while his research pace accelerated. However, in his second year, Dr. Goeddel failed his oral exams. He knew his research, he felt confident discussing it, but one of his more experienced advisors focused their questioning on physical chemistry and enzymology: structures, pathways. After the exams Dr. Caruthers broke the bad news, and Goeddel spent the next two months memorizing every name and every pathway of every enzyme he found even tangentially related to his project:

I was not happy having to remember all of these, but this was the old school way of doing things. I had published six or seven papers by then; I was looking forward to speaking to my expertise.

Dr. Goeddel found success soon after school transforming his research and expertise into a promising career. After graduating from CU, Dr. Goeddel moved to Stanford in 1978 to continue his work as a postdoctoral fellow. However, Genentech, then a start-up, called and offered him a job for much the same work. Ultimately, the allure of entrepreneurship and expanded funding prospects convinced him to join the start-up.

Driving Innovation

Using the techniques he had learned in the Caruthers Lab, Dr. Goeddel led a young Genentech through a litany of drug discoveries through the 1970’s and 80’s, including bacteria-synthesized insulin used today by millions across the globe. Although a fresh doctorate, with next to no postdoctoral experience, Dr. Goeddel quickly stepped into a leading role of a start-up hoping to harness exactly the techniques he had mastered. Once again, the timing was perfect, and the resulting avalanche of new therapies meant Dr. Goeddel quickly became an influential figure in biotechnology. In 1978 Genentech was effectively the first biotechnology or bioengineering company of its kind, especially with respect to plasmid-based cloning, and David Goeddel was one of a handful of biochemists capable of DNA synthesis.

In 1993, Dr. Goeddel decided to step away from the bench and create a resource he wished he had had when underwriting postdoctoral grants at Stanford. He would take the profits of his life’s work in drug discovery and found The Column Group, which today is a venture capital fund focused on new biotech start-ups with what Dr. Goeddel sees as game-changing science: “we’re funding new start-ups—looking for bright young scientists.”  After such a successful career behind the bench, Dr. Goeddel is finding fulfillment connecting the next generation of talented scientists with the resources they need. Though the field may be moving fast, one of you readers may be just the scientist needed for the next big thing.