A Will and a Way

Hubert Schoemaker determined at an early age to do what it took to make his mark. He has left a legacy of biotechnology advances.

By Jennifer Dionisio | May 17, 2008

Hubert Schoemaker made an important announcement while visiting his parents’ home in The Netherlands in summer 1979. Schoemaker (1950–2006), then 28 years old, stood before the fireplace and told his family that he was leaving his research position at Boston-based Corning Medical to help start a biotech company with Hilary Koprowski, a celebrated researcher, and Michael Wall, a successful entrepreneur. His cousin, Erik Schoemaker, recalls the family’s excitement: “His parents felt that this was a rocket ship for Hubert’s future, to be invited onto this team.” Their prediction proved correct.

Hubert and Anne Schoemaker

Hubert and Anne Schoemaker

Hubert and Anne Schoemaker in February 1998.

Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia

With the founding of their new venture, Centocor, Schoemaker helped to spark the biotech revolution. Centocor was only the third biotechnology company ever created and the first company that was started with the purpose of commercializing monoclonal antibodies. This distinction cemented his professional legacy, but Schoemaker’s impact on colleagues, family, and friends has loomed equally large. Renowned for his generosity, wisdom, and drive, Schoemaker is remembered by all for his most distinguishing trait: optimism. “To call Hubert an optimist is to understate his exuberant belief that anything can be accomplished if enough will and energy are applied,” explains Harlan Weisman, the former president of research and development at Centocor.

As a new high school graduate, Schoemaker accompanied his father on a business trip from their native country to the United States in 1969. While there he decided to apply to the University of Notre Dame, even though admission deadlines had already passed. He convinced the university to accept him by earning a perfect math score on an SAT exam, taken on the spot in the admissions office. Late admission meant limited options; Schoemaker ended up a chemistry major by default.

After graduating from Notre Dame Schoemaker enrolled in the biochemistry doctoral program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Although he turned down his admission to the Harvard School of Business, he often sat in on classes at MIT’s Sloane School of Management. After earning his PhD from MIT in only three years, he shocked his colleagues by turning down a postdoctoral appointment at Stanley Cohen’s lab at Stanford University and instead accepting a position at AIM Packaging, a low-tech manufacturing company owned by a family friend, to learn the ins and outs of running a business.

“He was so overqualified it was ridiculous,” laughs his former boss Pete Maher. “I said, ‘I think you’re going to learn everything that you need here in a matter of weeks, if that much.’” Schoemaker left four months later and joined Corning Medical, where he worked as a research scientist on pioneering immunoassays and eventually became head of R&D. As he accompanied Corning’s marketing team across the world to promote their products, he also earned a reputation as a charismatic salesman.

Word of the young Dutch phenom reached Wall and Koprowski while they were in the midst of forming Centocor in Philadelphia. Schoemaker was initially hired as head of manufacturing and operations, but an early executive shake-up led to his appointment as CEO. In 1980 Schoemaker and his family moved from Boston to Philadelphia. “When it was decided Hubert was going to take over Centocor, it was clear right away that he wanted to have a very positive environment,” says former Centocor CFO Vincent Zurawski. “Hubert was very good at working with the people in the company, talking to them, and giving the impression that he was really behind them.”

Centocor’s early success stemmed from a line of diagnostic products, most notably the first test for cervical cancer. Their move into developing therapeutics was, by the late 1980s, primarily focused on Centoxin, a drug for treating patients with sepsis. Despite industry excitement, the drug was unexpectedly denied FDA approval. “He would insist that the company would get through it okay,” says Centocor’s former head of media and investor relations, Rick Koenig, who recalls that Schoemaker told a group of concerned investors, “We will survive and we will prosper.”

His words ultimately rang true, with the 1995 approval of the cardiovascular drug ReoPro. Three years later Centocor debuted an even bigger drug, Remicade, which treats Crohn’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis. With Centocor back on track, the company was sold to Johnson and Johnson for $4.9 billion in 1999.

Schoemaker could have retired to savor three personal victories—saving Centocor, remission of the brain cancer he had fought for five years, and his second marriage, to a technology licensing specialist at the Wistar Institute named Anne Faulkner. But few were surprised when instead he founded a new company, Neuronyx, a company that harnesses the therapeutic potential of the human stem cell. He continued to promote the strong community of biotechnology enterprise in southeastern Pennsylvania, a community that his vision shaped years earlier. “Locally, Hubert shared ideas and helped a lot of us get started,” says Frank Baldino, the founder of Cephalon. “He gave his time and his advice freely . . . he was the most supportive guy.”