UPDATED: Biotech pioneer and startup investor John Martin, who built Gilead into a powerhouse player, has died
John C. Martin, who led Gilead to greatness in developing a hugely profitable HIV drug franchise, has died.
His death at the age of 69 was flagged by the company he built, though a spokesperson for Gilead said the company didn’t know the cause of death.
“John’s legacy will be felt for generations to come, living on through the scientific progress made under his leadership and the programs he championed that expanded access to medications for people around the world,” said Daniel O’Day, who took over as CEO after Martin and his close colleague John Milligan left Gilead a couple of years ago. “On behalf of all of us at Gilead, I extend our deepest condolences to John’s family.”
Martin started at Gilead as a VP of R&D back in 1990, moving up to CEO only 6 years later as he helmed the company for a 20-year stretch before handing the reins to Milligan and sticking with the chairman’s post until 2019. During that time the company built a rep as a fearsome competitor in HIV, fielding drug cocktails that kept the deadly AIDS at bay for millions — while also being targeted by critics for being tone deaf on pricing controversies.
It was Gilead that would be the first to win the race to develop a largely painless combo cure for hepatitis C, and it was Gilead that rocked the industry with an $84,000 price tag that threatened a wide swathe of payers, creating a controversy that set the stage for a years-long public battle over pricing that continues to simmer in Washington, DC.
In the industry, however, Martin was widely loved. And he continued to play an active role as a biotech investor and enthusiast backing a number of fledgling startups, including the Kronos startup led by ex-Gilead R&D chief Norbert Bischofberger, where he joined the board and the investor syndicate. Kite founder and longtime biotech entrepreneur Arie Belldegrun, who worked with Martin on Kronos, sent this to Endpoints News:
John was a brilliant life science leader and trusted advisor to many, myself included. Our bond was formed through a shared passion for science, but it grew even deeper as our families grew together in friendship. The hole that now exists by his absence, not just in our family, but by all of us in the industry, is immeasurable. We will seek to fill it with gratitude for his remarkable life and work to honor him in all we do. On behalf of my wife Rebecka, myself, our entire Belldegrun/Funt family and our extended family of colleagues across companies, we extend our deepest sympathies to John’s family and everyone who was fortunate enough to know him. He will be greatly missed.
Bischofberger offered this tribute:
On behalf of the employees and Board of Directors at Kronos Bio, I am deeply saddened by John’s passing. An exceptional scientist and business leader, John has made immeasurable contributions to the life sciences community, our company and numerous other organizations. Most importantly, he has helped millions of people around the world through the medicines we developed throughout our nearly three decades as colleagues. He leaves a lasting legacy that will benefit patients around the world for years to come. John was one of my dearest friends and a great mentor, and I will miss him terribly. We extend our deepest sympathies to John’s family and everyone who was fortunate to have known him.
Others took to Twitter to say goodbye.
SO sad about passing of John Martin. As @GileadSciences CEO he changed lives of people with HIV and HCV, and built a top 5 biotech. I was just getting to know him better. R.I.P. John.https://t.co/VF7v1jluhg
— John Maraganore (@JMaraganore) March 31, 2021
John was an amazing leader, my most influential mentor and embodied a biotech success culture that fueled Gilead’s success. I’ll always remember his frequent visits to my office (2 doors down from him) at 6:30am to hear his insights. You’ll be sorely missed, John! 🙏🥲 https://t.co/1gMZa5YtRX
— Chris Garabedian (@cngarabedian) March 31, 2021