How Martine Rothblatt leapt boundaries in science, tech and gender
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Entrepreneurs who beat the odds and build a single strong business intrigue me. Successful serial entrepreneurs, those who create multiple pioneering businesses, amaze me. Only a handful qualify as members of that exclusive club.
Steve Jobs and Elon Musk are two, and the list has to include Martine Rothblatt, a brilliant innovator and leader who has defied many odds and conventions. Rothblatt is chairman and chief executive of United Therapeutics, a biotech company she founded in 1997 that makes drugs for rare pulmonary diseases and is valued at $6bn. (Full disclosure: I serve on the company’s board of directors.) She also founded Sirius Satellite Radio, now SiriusXM.
Rothblatt is many people. She is a lawyer, an MBA and a PhD in bioethics. She is the author of six books, among them The Apartheid of Sex, Unzipped Genes and Virtually Human: The Promise — and the Peril — of Digital Immortality. She is transgender: she attended UCLA Law and UCLA Anderson in the late 1970s to early 1980s as Martin and some 10 years later transitioned to become Martine. Her wife then and now, Bina, and their four children, are a close-knit, loving family.
When she was an MBA student, Rothblatt realised that by creating more powerful satellites, shrinking receiving antennas and digitally strengthening the audio signal, a nationwide satellite broadcast radio system could be created in a specific band of radio frequencies. She persuaded the authorities to shift the use of these valuable frequencies from other industries to her new concept of satellite radio. That became Sirius Satellite Radio.
Several years later her eight-year-old daughter, Jenesis, developed a lung disease that was usually fatal. Rothblatt learned of a potentially useful drug compound, deployed researchers to develop it, took it through clinical trials and approval and commercialised it and related therapies. Today, her daughter is thriving in her 30s and thousands of others also benefit from the drugs.
Rothblatt’s next frontier is the development of regenerative organs. She is experimenting with growth of kidneys, hearts and ultimately lungs in laboratories for transplant, in an attempt to solve the problems of supply and rejection. She is also creating an electric helicopter for organ delivery that is non-polluting, safer and quieter. There’s more: “Bina48” is an example of her exploration of machine-based human consciousness, an attempt to ensure that an individual’s thoughts, emotions and mannerisms live on after death. The first model for this proof of concept robot is Bina, her wife.
What is the essence of this renaissance thinker, trailblazing innovator and very successful doer? I think of four qualities. None is unique, but the combination is inimitable. First, she is a pragmatic problem solver, but the problems she chooses are “big, hairy and audacious” in the words of business strategist Jim Collins. Yet she does not see herself as a dreamer; she dives into a challenge and learns about it from the bottom up. She is resilient, too — setbacks are expected, an invitation to approach a challenge from another angle.
Second, she is a leader who inspires others with her authenticity. The workforce of 750 at United Therapeutics feels her integrity and belief in her work. She articulates clarity of purpose — employees know that her daughter’s life and others have been transformed. They see a person who is open and honest, who has confronted her own gender identity questions, who is open to differences of all kinds. It is no accident that her company is scored highly by Just Capital, which ranks businesses on their “just” policies and practices.
Third, her curiosity and hunger for creative ideas are evident in every conversation. She insists on a culture of exploration and experimentation. Her life is about crossing boundaries and she sees them as unnecessary constraints, both personally and intellectually.
I believe her drive to transcend boundaries has been essential to her success as a pioneering innovator.
Fourth, Rothblatt is a powerful communicator. She can speak to scientists, regulators, a TED audience or a group of sales employees and explain complex concepts in ways that suit each. Because of her communication style, her ideas have bred loyalty within the company and attracted business and regulatory partners who have been essential to her entrepreneurial successes.
Rothblatt’s life story is remarkable. It is inseparable from the qualities that have taken her on a journey of pragmatic problem solving, authentic leadership, boundless experimentation and powerful communication. She will continue to beat the odds. Trust me, she will upend and improve the world — again.
Judy D Olian is dean and John E Anderson chair at UCLA Anderson School of Management