Penhoet receives Lester Center Lifetime Achievement Award
Business school honors entrepreneurial spirit of Chiron founder, outgoing dean of public health



Edward Penhoet
Kirstie Tweed photo

17 April 2002 | A researcher, co-founder of the world’s second largest bioengineering firm, and dean of Berkeley’s School of Public Health, Ed Penhoet now has another achievement to his name: a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Lester Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Haas School of Business.

He will accept the award at a ceremony April 25, shortly before he is slated to retire from the university. In June, he’ll open a new chapter, as director of the science, higher education and health programs of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

During a recent conversation with Berkeleyan writer D. Lyn Hunter, Penhoet talked about the award, his business and university career and the new job that awaits him.

How does it feel to receive a lifetime achievement award?
I wish it was a “two-thirds-of-a-lifetime award,” not a “lifetime award.” I still have plenty of years left in me and hope to continue to do interesting things. It’s a great honor to be among such an impressive group of recipients, like Gordon Moore and Arthur Rock. I will be keeping some very good company.

You’re being honored for your entrepreneurship. What does it take to be successful in this arena?
You have to be a little bit crazy to begin with. Taking a big risk is to some degree an irrational act. You have to be willing to jump off a diving board while not being sure if there’s any water in the pool. I was fortunate to have two partners to jump with, so that made it a lot easier. I’ve learned over the years, though, that risks are never as large as people think. Whenever you try new things you acquire new skills and become more valuable as a person.

After so many years as a business leader, you decided to come back to the university as dean in 1998. What was this transition like?
I was a professor of biochemistry here before starting Chiron and continued to teach while I was running the business. So I never really lost touch. I think Chiron’s success was enhanced by my working relationship with the university and vice versa. Most of the students I taught were pre-med, so they appreciated the practical applications I brought to the classroom. We also hired many Berkeley students and graduates to work at Chiron and they brought fresh ideas.

One of the things I enjoyed most in the business world was working in teams. While the university rewards individual contributions, companies only succeed as a result of team efforts. When I came back as dean, I brought that philosophy with me. The field of public health is difficult because it encompasses so many disciplines, so I worked hard to help people find common elements of their interests and work on those things together. My impression is we’ve moved quite far in bringing some areas of synthesis within the school.

Is the campus’s Health Sciences Initiative, which you helped launch, an extension of this teamwork concept?
Yes, this idea of cross-disciplinary work has probably seen its greatest manifestation for me in the Health Sciences Initiative, which seeks to facilitate interaction between faculty, so they can accomplish things together they can’t do separately. This initiative reflects the changes that are taking place worldwide in the field of science. Young researchers are now more problem-oriented and less discipline-oriented. If they want to figure something out, they use engineering, chemistry or physics to do it. There was already a general tendency toward working this way when I came back as dean. What I tried to do was switch it from an implicit concept to an explicit program for the university.

What compelled you to take the job at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation?
What’s interesting and challenging for me is the opportunity to do philanthropy on a broad scale with one of the largest foundations in the world. To get in on the ground floor and help define the mission of the foundation is very attractive to me. I am really looking forward to helping the foundation invest its resources in projects that enhance the environment and the human condition.


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