Reg Kelly, Scotsman from Humble Roots, Finds New Purpose at QB3 in Mission Bay

6/21/10Follow @xconomy

One of the leaders of the renaissance in biomedical research and entrepreneurship in San Francisco’s Mission Bay district almost didn’t have a chance to go to college.

Reg Kelly, the director of the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3), was born 70 years ago in Edinburgh, Scotland, into a family so poor that he couldn’t afford boots to go hiking with his friends. His stepfather was an auto mechanic, and his mother cleaned factory floors. Kelly’s mother wanted him to go to work at 17 to help the family. He went to college only because Britain’s government in the late 1950s provided full-ride scholarships, including tuition and living expenses, to bright kids from poor families.

The force of personality that was partly shaped by those early struggles propelled Kelly on a career arc that led to the peak of academic neuroscience. Now six years removed from an abandoned attempt to sail away into the sunset, the hard-driving Scotsman has come back to pursue an even more improbable dream. He’s overcome some big political and cultural barriers to create an environment that’s incubating 22 biotech startups in what used to be one of the bleakest areas of the city. Mission Bay, he says, is on track to become nothing less than what he calls “the academic health center of the 21st century.”

“I’ve just hustled. It’s what I’ve been doing all my life,” Kelly says. “It’s the advantage of growing up a poor kid. You’ve got to hustle to make things happen.”

QB3 connects three big research centers in northern California—UC San Francisco, UC Berkeley, and UC Santa Cruz—to venture capital, entrepreneurship, and the for-profit life sciences industry. It provides key ingredients like mentoring, lab space, state-of-the-art equipment, about $8 million in seed capital, and free beer for networking events.

I met with Kelly at his office a little more than a week ago to learn more about the person who has made so much of this happen.qb3logo

Kelly was born in 1940, the year Germany launched the Blitz against London and other British cities and prime minister Winston Churchill delivered his legendary “finest hour” speech. He was the oldest of three sons. The Kellys lived in public housing, and the boys attended schools operated by the Catholic Church. He was a top student in his class, but didn’t show interest in science.

“There were only two choices, you either studied Latin and Greek and became a priest, or you opted for science,” Kelly says. “I didn’t particularly care for science. I liked history.”

While Kelly was growing up, Britain’s Labour Party established a benefit program for kids like Kelly. Not only could bright students from poor families get free tuition, but their families could get aid to cover living expenses, which made it easier to cope with a young worker being out of the workforce. This benefit proved to be short-lived, and the program was cancelled when middle-class families started demanding the same benefit, Kelly says. “There was a brief window there when to be bright, and poor, was advantageous,” Kelly says.

That scholarship took him to the nearby University of Edinburgh. He graduated … Next Page »

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