Why Universities Are Key to the Future of Biotech, and How UCSF’s Chief is Showing the Way

These are hard times at universities in America. State support is dwindling, tuition is booming, and federal research dollars are in jeopardy. Morale has taken a beating.

But U.S. academic research centers are still the driving force for innovative new medicines, like always. And anyone who cares about U.S. universities should pay attention to what’s happening at UC San Francisco under the leadership of chancellor Susan Desmond-Hellmann.

Desmond-Hellmann, a biotech industry star from her days running drug development at Genentech, has her work cut out in her third year as UCSF’s chancellor. Like any executive arriving on campus, she’s had to learn a lot in a hurry. UCSF is a complex, 23,000-employee enterprise that does everything from studying the basic functions of stem cells to helping discover new drugs to treating patients. Starting in August 2009, she’s had the unpleasant job of overseeing furloughs, layoffs, and multi-million-dollar budget cuts. She’s said no, repeatedly, to promising new scientific initiatives.

But she hasn’t been stuck on the defensive the entire time. UCSF has struck a number of creative partnerships with companies like Pfizer, Sanofi, and Bayer, which are being closely followed at other universities. UCSF has also found a way, with the help of some big-time philanthropy, to break ground on two ambitious projects—a $1.5 billion hospital complex and a $200 million neurosciences research facility in the Mission Bay district. There in the same neighborhood, the university has also continued to support QB3, an incubator where academic scientists are starting companies that test whether their ideas just might have what it takes to become new drugs, devices, or diagnostics.

The Mission Bay cluster has been growing for years, and Desmond-Hellmann plans to describe her vision for what it can accomplish at noon Pacific time tomorrow in her “State of the University” address. I spoke with her about some of these themes in a wide-ranging interview at her office in UCSF’s Parnassus Heights a little more than a week ago. True to her disciplined business training, Desmond-Hellmann plans to outline a 3-year plan with measurable goals that she says will make her and her team clearly accountable for delivering what they promise. If all goes according to plan, she says UCSF will celebrate its 150th birthday in 2014 with a greater capability to advance health than it has today.

UCSF Chancellor Susan Desmond-Hellmann, at her office

“I’m sticking my neck out there and saying the world is changing very quickly, and yet our aspiration at UCSF is to be a world leader in health science innovation,” Desmond-Hellman says. “If that’s our aspiration, what are we going to do to that end? At a terrible time, with a rotten California economy, a rotten national economy, a rotten state of the world, people will see there was a medical center, an academic center in California, that positioned itself to have its best days.”

To see how far UCSF can go in this mission to deliver better healthcare to people, Desmond-Hellmann and her team have been challenging a lot of basic assumptions about how things get done. The university has already been pushed to operate more efficiently wherever it can, like, say, sharing one shiny new gene sequencing machine instead of buying two. But trimming around the edges and wringing out efficiency gains will only go so far.

As Desmond-Hellmann puts it:

“When you look at times of enormous stress in the system, that’s a great opportunity for people to look at fundamental things like whether we have the right curriculum for students learning how to become professionals in life sciences. What about graduate training? Is it OK that the average age for a first [basic NIH grant] is 42 years old? If it’s not OK, what is UCSF doing to address it? How much does it cost to be taken care of in our medical center? Who cares for people? How do we track what happens to patients? How are we doing in terms of safety and quality? What is UCSF really doing to say ‘here’s how life should be better.'”

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