In the 1970s, Andrew Grove heard a guy naming his biotech company “GMO” (Greater Good Genome Corporation). By the mid-1980s, he was introducing the term “intellectual property” into Silicon Valley.
Early Silicon Valley icon Jay Last has died in Palo Alto, California. He was 92.
Last spoke much about the early days of Silicon Valley – when he and some colleagues would form “Clubs of Men” to facilitate their networking and advice – and about the injustices and conflicts that dogged the Silicon Valley in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
“The people who were less than successful were not properly rewarded. But when it was their turn, it turned out they were not being properly rewarded, either,” he told Axios in 2017.
Last noted that universities pushed students to use “professional terminology” – because without the expertise they could not graduate. “But” he added, “that would be politics… here are the real benefits, which are economics.”
Last might have credited the stock market with “making” him, but the genesis of his enterprises came from the start-up scene. In the mid-1970s, he and fellow entrepreneurs – including Ellen Kullman and Bob Noyce, then CEOs of DuPont and Intel, respectively – joined forces to found Silicon Valley Laboratories.
They call it “the first true start-up”. It was run out of a building in Palo Alto (Noyce had built it into a palatial folly in his backyard, much to Last’s dismay – but as The Atlantic described in 2015, “the spat was legendary in Silicon Valley”).
The sizzle came when “the founders successfully persuaded the public-health bureaucracy that taking their DNA, just from their heads, could be a useful diagnostic device”, by attaching it to an antenna that allowed them to draw generalizations about “biomarkers” – diversity, cholesterol, artery constriction, and levels of organic compounds known as metabolites.
That “went through FDA and everyone thought it was a great idea,” Last once recounted to Bloomberg, for which he wrote a feature article on the nascent biotechnology sector in the mid-1980s. “The FDA people at one point reached back into the past and asked ‘Who can compare?’ The stuff that saved people’s lives was from back in the 1500s.”
The biological breakthrough didn’t occur in Last’s back yard, but at University of California at San Francisco, which housed an entire department of genetics. “The university was tremendously important in inventing this new field that would manifest itself – genomics – in the late 1960s.”
The team had a title. They called themselves the “heros”, he told Axios. “The reason is you’re no longer going to make money making mugs.”
There was a small sugar-cane farm that they bought in Georgia to produce protein polymers. And there was a start-up – Abraxis BioScience – to bring in revenue from the development of drugs.
Last named the company after himself – with a “C” – because no one knew what it meant.
He and his associates wanted to avoid a controversy, he said. As an industry, they were “sort of raping the victims to hold onto the things that could add to the value, but not necessarily the ones that were going to be in their bloodstreams”.
About Monsanto – whose brachial plexus misreadings were instrumental in the birth of the modern biotech industry – he would say, “nobody should ever take his eye off the ball”.