Let’s be clear: Martine Rothblatt is just plain more of a lawyer than anybody else in this town.
The 60-year-old grandmother and CEO of United Therapeutics, the Silver Spring-based biotech she founded to help save her younger daughter’s life, banked $38 million last year. It made her the nation’s highest-paid female executive. It also made her the nation’s highest-paid transgendered person, as she had sex reassignment surgery in 1994.
In a lab on Spring Street, Rothblatt’s newest project appears lifted from science fiction: disembodied but breathing human lungs, hissing away in dome-shaped incubators, part of a clinical trial attempting to mend donated but not-quite-accepted-for-transplant lungs so that they can actually be placed in living human beings.
On a Virginia farm, she’s also raising genetically altered pigs, in the hope that someday their lungs (and other organs) will be modified for use in human transplant, creating a nearly inexhaustible supply of organ donors.
She just published “Virtually Human,” a big-think manifesto on the rights of yet-to-be-created cyber-humans, who might one day be uploaded with all of your thoughts, dreams, memories and online activity and live for eternity as a sort-of you.
She founded a religion, the Terasem Movement, which puts together her cultural Judaism (she puts on a mean seder), Zen-like yoga and a deep belief in technology. One of the four founding beliefs: “Death is optional.”
The physical manifestation of this faith is a bodyless robot, named and modeled after Rothblatt’s second wife, Bina. The robot, Bina48, is just a head. It has a face made of frubber, wears a good-looking wig, has facial-scanning software in her “eyes,” so that when her head whirs and clicks, then locks on your face, she’s running your profile to see if she “knows” you.
Bina48 lives on a desk in rural Vermont, awaiting the day when man and machine are one.
Hey, go ahead, yuk it up. Rothblatt is buddies with Larry Page and Ray Kurzweil, who sort of run a little company called Google. Kurzweil, the futurist and director of engineering at Google, is on United Therapeutics’ board of directors and thinks Bina48 is a glimpse of the future.
In the late 1980s, Rothblatt conceived of and created a crazy company devoted to the idea of worldwide satellite radio. Today that’s Sirius XM. It’s in your car’s dashboard, next to the satellite navigation device … and she was president of Geostar, the first company to market that, too. Her college thesis became the first private satellite phone company.
“She has to my knowledge a perfect track record in making [her] visions real,” Kurzweil writes in an e-mail.
Rothblatt dropped out of the satellite orbit because her and Bina’s daughter was diagnosed at 5 with what is now called pulmonary arterial hypertension, an incurable lung disease. It progressively narrows the lung’s arteries to the point of death. By 12, Jenesis would faint all the time, her life seeping away in intensive care units.
So Rothblatt sold out of Sirius, set to studying biology — the last such course she had taken was in 10th grade — and formed U.T.
Today, Jenesis is 30, in good health and does film-production work for the now-$6 billion firm. Martine led the company to developing a new FDA-approved pill for pulmonary arterial hypertension, Orenitram (“Martine Ro,” backward). The stock price soared, and so did her incentive package.
Amid all this, Martine and Bina have been married for 32 years, before and after Rothblatt’s gender surgery. They’re so joined at the hip that the kids refer to them as “Marbina.” Their younger son, Gabriel, just ran for Congress in Florida’s Eighth District (Democrat, lost, but a respectable debut). When Rothblatt set up a $225,000 super PAC to fund Gabriel’s campaign — without his knowledge, he says — she drew a rebuke from the New York Times editorial page for parental abuse of electoral process.
Let’s see … what else? She flies airplanes. And helicopters. Kills on the piano. Runs half-triathlons. Has several houses and apartments and says she hasn’t stayed in one place more than a month in 20 years. During September and October, she and Bina touched down in Greece, Crete, Washington, Los Angeles, Bora Bora, back to Silver Spring, took the grandkids trick-or-treating in Melbourne Beach, Fla., while Gabriel was out campaigning, then flew to London and popped back to D.C.
Oh. She’s taller than you, too.