Working Smarter, Not Harder at Genentech
Business is Like Swimming for Josh Makal

By Joanna Corman

As an undergraduate at UC Davis, Josh Makal excelled as a competitive swimmer, earning an All-American title for freestyle in 2002.

He still swims with the Davis Aquatic Masters group, and knows that the best way to increase speed in the water is not to spend more calories, but figure out how to become more efficient.

Business is often the same way. Long-term gains and profit are made by the companies that are more efficient, not necessarily those that work harder.

The same energy, focus and determination that Makal has in the pool he brings to his work at Genentech’s manufacturing plant in Vacaville, where he helps manufacture anti-cancer drugs, and as a second-year student in the UC Davis Sacramento MBA program.

While earning his bachelor’s degree in genetics at UC Davis, Makal knew Genentech, the birthplace of biotechnology, would offer many rewarding career opportunities. Today, he is a master bioprocess technician in Genentech’s Purification Operations Group. His team grows cells in fermentation tanks until they are ready to be harvested. The cells excrete proteins into a solution and Makal purifies them by isolating a single protein that is put into an injectable liquid that will be part of a chemotherapy regimen.

Makal manages the systems that execute this process, monitoring the operations to ensure the drugs are of the highest quality and meet strict FDA requirements for safety.

Much of Makal’s time at Genentech has been managing change. For about five years, he led a group that would evaluate potential changes from a cost-benefit analysis and alignment with the company’s goals, then put them into action. Makal’s work for Genentech has earned him several promotions and awards.

Nearly two years ago, Makal pioneered the process the Vacaville plant uses to manage continuous improvement of ideas from the shop floor to implementation. The goal is to reduce manufacturing costs or improve safety and quality. It’s all about streamlining efficiencies, working smarter, not harder, just like a swimmer in the pool.

A wave of change rippled through Genentech in 2009 when pharma giant Roche, already a partial owner of Genentech, acquired full control in a deal valued at $46.8 billion. The cultures of Swiss-based Roche and Genentech, which is characterized by creativity and independence, had Genentech employees concerned about whether the merger would lead to a brain-drain. 

“From my perspective, Roche has done a very good job of integrating the very progressive and culture-driven Genentech,” Makal says. “The transition took a few years, where there were some lingering questions regarding culture shift, or a movement to a more corporate or ‘big pharma’ mentality. In the end, however, Roche has kept a significant portion of the culture that made Genentech so dynamic.”

Makal has a deep sense of pride in his work at Genentech, producing drugs that save lives. “It’s extremely rewarding and reminds everyone of why we are here,” he says. “It completely energizes me.”

Now that he’s pursuing an MBA, the former Eagle Scout is transitioning out of change management into an as yet unknown role. “That’s correlated with my time at the Graduate School of Management and understanding that I have a lot more to offer,” he says. “It’s time to diversify my skill set a little bit more.”

One of his long-term professional aspirations is to head a drug manufacturing plant. “I enjoy working as a team to tackle a problem and make decisions and help people make their job easier.”