Palo Alto Online - Lasting Memories - Sam Eletr's memorial

Sam Eletr
March 24, 1939-May 15, 2024
Kensington, California

Dr. Sam Eletr, a visionary scientist, engineer and entrepreneur, passed away in San Francisco on May 15, 2024 after a long illness. He created many successful biotech companies and in the late 70’s founded a company that developed machines for DNA analysis, later used to facilitate the Human Genome Project.

Dr. Eletr was born in Alexandria, Egypt in 1939 and at 17, left alone for France to pursue his education. With meagre means in Paris, after only a year of preparation, he was accepted into France’s prestigious and highly selective, Grandes Écoles. He studied Electrical Engineering at the Institute National Polytechnique in Grenoble. With little English, Dr. Eletr left for the United States in 1959 to pursue a Physics Masters at Virginia Tech, Blacksburg and finally a Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley.

Following post-doctoral research at the esteemed CNRS Bordeaux, France and University of California School of Medicine San Francisco, he joined the staff of the Hewlett-Packard Corporate Research Laboratories in Palo Alto. There, as Head of Research & Development, he worked on a panoply of medical instrumentation, including the first blood oximeter, “intelligent” respirators and cardiac monitoring systems.

In 1979, Dr. Eletr founded GeneCo, later renamed Applied Biosystems, in Foster City, CA, which built instrumentation to accelerate discovery in the then new field of biotechnology. The company first developed a gas-phase protein sequencer, a DNA synthesizer, and then a DNA sequencer used to sequence the entire human genome for the first time. Under Dr Eletr’s leadership, ABI (Applied Biosystems) became a household name in gene sequencing and a major presence in the biotech revolution. It developed tools for automating laboratory processes that enabled groundbreaking advancements in biology and medicine.

Dr. Eletr resigned from Applied Biosystems in 1987, due to ill health, but his entrepreneurial spirit was irrepressible and he continued to work around the world. He enjoyed a close friendship with the Nobel Science Laureate Dr Sydney Brenner, and in 1992 they created Lynx Therapeutics, another visionary technology company, to vastly improve the ABI sequencers he began with. In 2004 he combined the Lynx technology with that of Solexa (UK), of which he was Chairman, and in 2005 engineered the acquisition of Manteia (Switzerland) to complete Lynx Therapeutics’ original vision. The technology combination of these three companies resulted in a billion-fold increase in the speed of DNA sequencing. The company was acquired by Illumina in 2006 and the technology was used extensively in COVID’s PCR nasal swab test.

Tirelessly determined and energetic, he never stopped devoting himself to his scientific objectives and was involved in other life science companies too; Domain Therapeutics, Population Genetics, blood testing systems iStat, (acquired by Abbott in 2004), lab-on-a- chip systems (Spinx Technologies, Switzerland) and Andrew Alliance, a laboratory robotics company (acquired by Waters in 2020) and most recently, Rhythm Diagnostic Systems. He served on the board of directors for several additional companies in related fields, Third Wave technologies and Faust Pharmaceuticals.

When not engaged with discovery, invention and company building, Dr. Eletr, was a gifted artist, formidable chess player, loved sailing on the San Francisco Bay, barging in France, traveling to exotic destinations, classic cars, films, good food and wine. He read extensively in both English and French, enjoyed writing, engaging in conversations with diverse people in Berkeley cafes and had a social conscience. He watched many episodes of “Finding Your Roots” and strongly believed that one’s identity was not determined by birth. By his admission, his gift was the ability to see how disparate things fit together. He was a good friend, a modest, generous man who enjoyed holding court in his garden and cooking for his many friends.

Dr. Eletr is survived by his wife Shelley.

Tags: business, public service

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