Frank Baldino Jr. was a biotech survivor. He started Cephalon Inc. in 1987 and developed it from zero to an expected $2.7 billion in annual revenue. He was still running the company after 23 years.

Mr. Baldino, 57, who had been on medical leave from Cephalon since August, lost his battle Thursday evening with leukemia. He died at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

The charismatic founder and chief executive of the region's largest independent biotechnology company was remembered by colleagues, university leaders, and the philanthropic world as a great guy, bigger than life, and extremely generous.

Many consider the Dutch-born biochemist Hubert J.P. Schoemaker to be the father of the local biotechnology industry. With three colleagues, he started the Philadelphia region's first biotech company, Centocor Inc., in 1979.

Frank Baldino was a close second.

"This is a guy who started in a cubicle in an incubator with a book of how to write a business plan and took the company to a multibillion-dollar organization," said Bruce Peacock, who worked for Mr. Baldino from 1988 to 1996, when Peacock left to head Orthovita Inc. in Malvern.

"Across the nation, he's one of the very few guys who has done it from scratch to a commercial, large, successful company," said Peacock, now a venture partner in SV Life Sciences in Boston and chief business officer of Ophthotech Corp. in Princeton.

"He helped dozens of other entrepreneurs get companies started. Frank was just a force," Peacock said. "He was a scientist by training, but developed an acumen in finance, sales, and marketing as well. It's a sad day."

Brenda D. Gavin, managing partner of Quaker Bio Ventures in Philadelphia, said she personally has known "fewer than a handful of people" who took a company from the science, through venture funding, public financing, and product approval to profitability.

"Believe me, they are so rare," Gavin said. "Typically what happens, the guy who's the founder is not the same person who can go forward and take it all the way.

"The great thing about Frank," Gavin said, "after he had the personal success with his company, he was instrumental in getting the life-sciences greenhouses started and funded in Pennsylvania, particularly the local one. He's on the board there. He really tried to give back to the community."

The "greenhouses" in Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and Pittsburgh are economic-development incubators for life-sciences jobs and businesses.

Although friends and colleagues knew he was ill, "everybody thought he'd be back. This is Frank!" Gavin said. "He's indomitable and would beat this and be back."

At age 33, while a research biologist at DuPont Co., Mr. Baldino was approached by two venture capitalists and asked to start a company to treat neurological diseases. He jumped at the chance and took with him two other DuPont scientists.

He built Cephalon, in Frazer, from no products in the late 1990s to eight sold now in the United States and more than 150 products sold in 80 countries. The company, whose net income was $342.6 million in 2009, employs about 4,000.

Cephalon has grown by looking for drugs and businesses to buy and, in the last decade, acquired 16 products or companies.

Cephalon's first experimental drug, Myotrophin - for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease - was rejected by the Food and Drug Administration. Even while working on Myotrophin in the early 1990s, Cephalon looked to diversify, and it licensed modafinil, sold under the brand name Provigil. It was that treatment for narcolepsy that became its first big seller.

Mr. Baldino, one of the longest-serving CEOs in biotech who has a doctorate in pharmacology from Temple University, ran one of the nation's few profitable biotechnology companies.

He had been a Temple trustee since December 2001. "We were repeatedly impressed with Frank's energy and enthusiasm for Temple, particularly his passion for enhancing Temple's reputation in the medical and business communities," board chairman Patrick J. O'Connor and university president Ann Weaver Hart said in a prepared statement.

Mr. Baldino also was a board member of the Franklin Institute, where he brought the perspective of scientist, businessman, and entrepreneur. "Frank's entrepreneurial spirit was really matched by his strong philanthropic drive," said institute president and CEO Dennis Wint. "His enduring legacy is one of creativity, generosity, leadership, and a passionate belief in the transformative powers of science to make the world a better place."

Out of respect for Mr. Baldino, the company was not discussing a succession plan Friday.

Cephalon chief operating officer J. Kevin Buchi has been handling Mr. Baldino's duties since August.

"He's a very capable guy," Gavin said, referring to Buchi. "I'm not privy to their plans. It will be the board's decision. The company, in this interim, has been functioning very well. The company will be fine. But still, it's a real blow."

Cephalon shares closed up $2.13, or 3.38 percent, at $65.24 on Wall Street speculation that the company might now be sold.

Cephalon vice president of public affairs Fritz Bittenbender said, "The short term is, we are not talking about a transition out of deference to Frank and his family." Buchi has been a strong leader during Mr. Baldino's medical leave, Bittenbender said, "and he will remain so in the near term."

The funeral will be private for family, with a public memorial service later.

Mr. Baldino is survived by his wife, Sandra; their two sons, Douglas, 6, and Harris, 1; and two sons, Jeff, 28, and James, 21, and daughter Leslie, 26, from a previous marriage.

In lieu of flowers, those wishing to honor Dr. Baldino and his family may make a contribution to:

Bone Marrow Transplant Research Fund
University of Pennsylvania
Attn: Elda Ford
3400 Civic Center Boulevard
PCAM 2 West Pavilion
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Contact staff writer Linda Loyd
at 215-854-2831 or lloyd@phillynews.com.