Henri Termeer was one of the first and most successful of a group of talented business executives who laid the foundations of today’s biotech industry.
Dutch-born, Henri (pronounced “Hén-ree”) Termeer held several increasingly senior positions in the US healthcare products industry. But in 1983, he gave up his executive position at Baxter and half his income and moved to Cambridge, MA to become President of Genzyme, a two-year old start-up company that, according to Termeer, consisted of two unexciting lab products businesses, a scientific advisory board of eight MIT and Harvard professors, two venture capital backers, and a NIH placenta supply contract. During a 28-year career at Genzyme, the longest tenure of any major biotech CEO, he built Genzyme into a global, Fortune 500 company with over $4 billion in annual revenues and 14,400 employees at its peak. The company’s and his own destiny was in many respects determined by Termeer’s decision, on becoming CEO in 1985, to forge ahead with the risky, expensive development of a novel drug candidate that was anticipated to treat only 5,000 patients around the world. This decision led, eventually, to the introduction in 1991 of Genzyme’s first rare disease product, Ceredase, heroically produced by using an enzyme derived from human placental tissue. The drug was developed to treat Gaucher disease, a rare condition, and became the first drug to receive FDA approval as an enzyme replacement therapy. It was followed by the development of therapeutics for other enzyme deficiencies such as Fabry and Pompe diseases, conditions generally known as orphan diseases because, like Gaucher, they were rare and patients had no available treatments.
Termeer did not simply lead a drug development program. Facing enormous opposition, he also pioneered a business model that made it possible to treat small patient cohorts by charging high prices and gaining support from health insurers and governments for coverage of these novel therapies. The high prices also provided necessary capital for the research and development of additional new breakthrough drugs and for programs that allowed these products to be given away free in countries that could not afford them. Termeer concurrently led Genzyme’s purchase of many small companies and product franchises that enabled it to diversify and become a broad-based healthcare products company, offering treatments for a range of therapeutic and diagnostic needs, including cancer, renal disease, and genetic testing.