Building for Science

Scientists came to Genentech to push the boundaries of medicine, but their windowless labs in dark, converted warehouses offered little in the form of inspiration. The company’s founders knew that one key to great science is a working environment that fosters collaboration and new ideas. They needed to create exactly that environment for their growing collection of world-class scientists. The company believed that scientists were the rock stars at Genentech, and set out to create a flagship building to show it.

That commitment became the Founders Research Center (FRC), the largest biotech research facility in the world when it opened in 1992. A dramatic 275,000 square foot complex, the FRC offered a setting that has since expanded and continues to inspire and attract some of the world’s top researchers.

DEDICATION: The importance of the FRC to Genentech’s mission was evident from the beginning. The dedication ceremony in October, 1992 was not only the first major event held on campus, it was a veritable “Who’s Who” of biotech: Co-founders Bob Swanson and Herb Boyer presided over the ceremony, along with the scientists who would work in the building for years to come. Photo: Genentech archives.

To make sure it was the ideal research facility, almost every aspect of the design was influenced by the researchers themselves—right down to the whiteboards that were installed everywhere, from labs to kitchens. “The thinking process behind the design included simple ideas that go a long way to help stimulate conversation and interaction,” says Avi Ashkenazi, a senior staff scientist in cancer immunology who joined Genentech in 1989. While the building was spacious, it was also engineered to bring people into contact. “Part of the philosophy was: Density is good,” says vice president of site services Carla Boragno. “You want the space to foster the ‘happy collisions’ that enable collaboration.”

The resulting complex is filled with bright natural light shining off the adjacent San Francisco Bay, with spectacular views from labs, offices and the elevated glass walkways that connect the complex. As it has for nearly 25 years, the FRC today serves as the idea generator for Genentech’s over 1,200 scientists and researchers, whose work has resulted in the discovery of more than 20 new medicines. The building reflects the company’s ongoing commitment to science, the expansion of knowledge and the advancement of clinical medicine.

COLLABORATIVE SPACES: The FRC was designed with collaboration in mind, providing a myriad of different spaces for formal meetings or chance encounters. There are airy walkways connecting buildings to more intimate outdoor seating such as this sunny courtyard.
VISION AND INSPIRATION: Unlike the company’s first laboratory space that was carved out of converted, windowless warehouses, most of FRC’s laboratories are located around the building’s perimeter. This decision, prompted by the researchers themselves, offers them a much more inviting and inspirational workspace, like this lab with its views of San Francisco Bay, and is one of the benefits that continues to attract newly minted graduates to apply for research work with the company.
LIGHT IN THE SHADOWS: The architects of the FRC brought natural light and an open feeling to the complex at every opportunity, including the stairways – instead of hiding away in corners, they climb unobstructed the three stories from ground to skylight, inviting interaction by the people working inside.
SCIENCE ON THE BAY: The FRC occupies a prime location on the Genentech campus, in a natural setting elevated above San Francisco Bay. For biologists whose passion is decoding the science of human life in the pursuit of clinical medicine, the FRC’s surrounding lush landscaping brings life to their front door.
A HUB OF ACTIVITY: The unique extended roofline of the main entrance to the FRC echoes the circular plazas of the grounds below, as well as the curvature of the DNA that is the subject of the research inside. It makes the building a landmark along the South San Francisco shoreline.
A MOMENT IN BRONZE: The FRC is also host of the bronze statue (by Larry Anderson) of company founders Bob Swanson and Herb Boyer, commemorating their now-famous first meeting in a San Francisco bar in 1976. (You know someone is a veteran Genentech researcher if they have one of the miniature replicas handed out at the FRC’s 1992 dedication ceremony.) Over the years, researchers have taken to dropping coins into their beer cups for good luck when launching important experiments, and even dressing up the statues on special occasions—a fitting tribute to founders who wanted their company to both make a difference and be fun.
MAKING CONNECTIONS: Impromptu meetings are often the source of new ideas that can sharpen the focus of an ongoing experiment or inspire an entirely new line of inquiry. The glass passageways and open plazas offer opportunities for “happy collisions” between scientists.
CONTINUED INSPIRATION: That commitment to innovative structures on the Genentech campus continues with the newest addition, Building 35, where a nurturing workplace meets an environmentally friendly and energy-efficient design. Photo: Genentech archives.