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In 2013, Martine Rothblatt made $38 million, making her the highest-paid female CEO in the country at the time. Though Rothblatt told New York magazine that topping the list was like “winning the lottery,” it didn’t quite sit right with her. “I can’t claim that what I have achieved is equivalent to what a woman has achieved,” she said at the time. “For the first half of my life, I was male.”
Rothblatt, the founder and CEO of pharmaceutical company United Therapeutics, transitioned in 1994, at the age of 40. “It was not hard for me to make the transition,” she says of the experience. “Everyone was very kind and understanding. I simply told everyone that I worked with that I was going to transition in a couple weeks, and I’d be Martine instead of Martin.”
At the time, the former space law attorney had launched multiple satellite communications companies—including Sirius Satellite Radio—and was onto her next venture. This one was personal: Rothblatt’s daughter had been diagnosed with a rare disease called pulmonary hypertension, which means the arteries that carry blood between your heart and lungs are constricted. Over time, the heart can give out from the strain of working harder to pump blood into the lungs. There were few treatment options, one of which was a drug that had to be delivered intravenously—and continuously—through a portable pump.
Rothblatt thought there was a better way. And after Sirius had gone public, she was feeling a bit antsy, even mulling retirement. She first started a $3 million research foundation but wanted things to move faster. So she made a career pivot: In 1996, she launched United Therapeutics, with the intent of pursuing a potential treatment that had been shelved by British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline because there wasn’t enough demand for the drug. Rothblatt’s goal was to create a pill, to appeal to both pharma bigwigs and patients like her daughter, who yearned for a more frictionless treatment.
Though United Therapeutics went public in 1999, it wasn’t until more than a decade later that Rothblatt finally got FDA approval—after two failed attempts—for a drug that could treat her daughter, called Orenitram. (That’s “Martine Ro” spelled backwards.) It’s a moment she cites as a highlight of her career. In the years since, United Therapeutics has started selling a number of FDA-approved drugs to treat pulmonary hypertension and has grown to boast a market cap of more than $4 billion. “I do consider it a major achievement, especially as a transgender woman, to have led a publicly traded company to a market cap more than 10 times what we went public at,” she says.
Rothblatt says she sees herself as a technologist, someone who “brings new technologies into being.” It’s only fitting, then, that her company’s mission has now expanded to include something that sounds like the stuff of science fiction: cross-species organ transplantation. “I always try to convert a moonshot into an earthshot,” Rothblatt told Forbes in 2018. “The moonshot is to have an unlimited supply of transplantable organs.”
To make that a reality, United Therapeutics is now experimenting with genetically modifying pig organs to transplant into humans. And in recent months, United Therapeutics has been investigating the efficacy of two potential drug treatments to treat acute respiratory distress syndrome, which can be caused by COVID-19. The company has also expanded on a partnership with biotech startup Celularity to conduct a clinical trial testing a new cell therapy on about 80 COVID-19 patients.
As a futurist, Rothblatt believes that sooner rather than later, our world might look more like the future conjured by the “San Junipero” episode of Black Mirror—one with digital copies of our identities, dubbed “mindclones” in Rothblatt’s 2015 book, Virtually Human: The Promise—and the Peril—of Digital Immortality. “My vision of the future is that software-based consciousness will gradually be accepted by more and more of humanity as equivalent to brain-based consciousness,” she says. Rothblatt has even offered a window into her vision by creating an AI robot called Bina48, a prototypical mindclone inspired by her wife.
Rothblatt also has another hope for the future—that young people will see her far-reaching career as an inspiration. “In general, males get a lot more encouragement to be successful in business and technology,” she says. “I feel blessed that I can now be a role model to young people that any body can take you anywhere. My mantra is ‘mind is deeper than matter.'”
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