Henri Termeer’s legacy will undoubtedly have a lasting impact, continuing to guide and nurture the biotechnology industry he helped transform. His science-driven, patient-focused approach was the cornerstone on which Genzyme was built and became a launch pad for the many companies spawned from his business model. In appreciation of his life’s work, we reflect on Henri’s influence and the profound impact he made on those who worked with him and the patients he was dedicated to serving.
A passion for impact
On December 2, 2002, CEO Henri Termeer addressed his Genzyme employees to commemorate the Company’s 20th anniversary, saying “We have come a long way over the years, and we should be proud of our accomplishments. But we have even further to go. Patients are counting on us.” These words sum up who Henri Termeer was: A man driven by a remarkable pioneering spirit coupled with a compassionate determination to never stop advocating for the patients at the center of our work.
The story of Henri’s rise to success has become biotechnology folklore: A research team led by Dr. Harvey Lodish, Henry Blair and Dr. Roscoe Brady had recently uncovered the potential of enzyme replacement therapy (ERT). In 1981, they formed Genzyme to advance research in ERT with the goal of treating Gaucher disease, a rare genetic disorder. Around that same time, Henri Termeer was an executive with the giant healthcare company, Baxter, where he had witnessed the powerful human impact and business value a niche product could have. By 1983, Genzyme was expanding and Lodish, Brady and Blair knew they needed someone with broader business experience.
“We were looking for someone to serve as president of the company,” said Dr. Lodish in a past interview. “From the very first meeting, Henri was confident that we could build a company based on the promise of enzyme replacement therapy. He believed in the research. But he also believed in the business model, which we all knew had never been tried before.”
Confident in Henri’s plan to transform scientific knowledge into a thriving business model the team hired him as president of Genzyme in October 1983.
The purpose was the patient. Patients were what we talked about... Patients were how we reported success of what we were doing. This connection, this thinking about the patient as being the central focus…it is remarkable how easy that translates, how cross-cultural that becomes.
From the beginning Henri voiced his plan as a simple one: Use cutting-edge science to make a difference in the lives of patients. Of course, the path wasn’t that easy. The results of the first clinical trial for ERT therapy in Gaucher disease were not an absolute success and raised many questions. This was a very rare disease, and in the trial only one participant – Brian Berman – had shown significant improvements. Henri was undeterred. “Many people felt Gaucher was too rare and doctors were not familiar with it,” recalled Termeer. “For me, treating one patient successfully was already a tremendous victory.”
Recalling how he felt when he realized the treatment for Brian Berman was working Henri said, “There’s no greater moment in anybody’s career…It was transforming, and out of it came something very important for me. We actually made an enormous difference for [Brian]. It was visible. You could sense it. You could feel it. You could understand it by just looking in the eyes of the people involved.”
With the positive results of one child in mind, Henri encouraged Genzyme to stay the course. Using his knack for attracting top talent, Henri hired more people, became a dynamic leader, and encouraged each individual at Genzyme to use their entrepreneurial skills to drive the business forward.
“Our company became very purpose-driven. Other companies may be very strategy-driven…We had a purpose,” said Henri. “The purpose was the patient. Patients were what we talked about. Patients were the pictures that we showed to each other. Patients were how we reported success of what we were doing. This connection, this thinking about the patient as being the central focus…it is remarkable how easy that translates, how cross-cultural that becomes.”
During his 28 years leading Genzyme, Henri built on the success of finding a treatment for Gaucher disease, the first rare disease in the Company’s portfolio, by developing additional treatments for rare diseases including Fabry, Pompe, MPS I, thyroid cancer and a range of diagnostic tests. Before being acquired by Sanofi in 2011, Henri also led Genzyme in late-stage research for its first treatment for relapsing multiple sclerosis.
A forward thinker
Henri once said, “If you are working to save the life of a child, the system will reorganize itself to help you." Not as simple as it sounds. Rather, the leadership and driving force that was Henri Termeer is what transformed the biotechnology industry. From the beginning, Henri set a standard of treating all patients regardless of location or ability to pay. “The nature of rare diseases is that it is global,” he said. “Treating all patients became natural. It was not a choice. We would treat regardless of circumstance. We became the lifeline for these patients.” Henri explained that this dedication to patients would also be the model in which to sustain a rare disease business: Treat first and teach the healthcare system after. “If a marketplace can’t be supported through a health care system, we have to figure out a way. We have to get started, because these patients don’t have the time to wait for the health care systems to catch up.”
When most were walking away, Henri Termeer had the vision, knowledge and compassion to create a company that could provide new hope for patients.
A lasting legacy
Anyone who ever knew Henri Termeer recognized him to be a motivated and decisive man. When he wanted something, he demonstrated unwavering determination. And where Henri went, people wanted to follow. He had unmatched success building a team to fight for his worthy causes. When he retired from Genzyme in 2011, Henri had grown the company from a small startup of 20 to more than 12,000 employees globally serving patients in more than 90 countries, all while establishing Massachusetts as a biotech mecca.
Henri’s contributions to Genzyme and to the biotechnology industry were many, but none more important than building the patient-focused culture that continues to define Sanofi Genzyme today. Henri’s passing is an enormous loss of a man who has given so much but who had so much more to give.
After hearing the news of Henri’s death, Head of Sanofi Genzyme, David Meeker wrote in a message to employees, “We all knew Henri. Some of us spent time with him personally, some of us met him through our time here at Genzyme or after he retired and some of us only knew him through others and the stories which were told. But we all knew Henri. We understood what he stood for, we are part of the company he built, and we are carrying forward the values he lived by.”
Thank you for defining our purpose, Henri. We pledge to carry forward your dream of helping those in need.