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

6/21/10Follow @xconomy

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of colleagues like Bill Rutter, who went on to co-found Chiron, and Herb Boyer, whose recombinant DNA technique was one of the discoveries that gave rise to the biotech industry.

“Herb Boyer didn’t get a lot of support from people like me, nor did Bill Rutter,” Kelly says. “It was the standard leftist thing to do-be against industry.” Anything to do with corporations, he thought, “would sully the beauty of academia.”

Kelly’s change of heart occurred around 1990, when he attended a company Christmas party hosted by Chiron. “There were 3,000 people at this party,” Kelly says. “All ethinic groups, from all economic strata, all dressed up to the nines, having a great party. It struck me that Bill Rutter, someone I criticized, had created 3,000 jobs. What had I done with my life? It was a revelation.”

He explained his thought process: “If you want to do good things for people, you have to do it with the private sector. It’s about creating businesses that create jobs, that create wealth, that creates happiness. It creates much more happiness than reading a great paper in Science or Nature. So I got more involved. I dropped my leftist attitudes toward business.”

Not only did Kelly drop his anti-business ideology, he started devoting himself to bridging the gap between academia and industry. During his stint as UCSF’s executive vice chancellor, from 2000 to 2004, Kelly established the first program in entrepreneurship for grad students, to help them better prepare for careers in biotechnology.

But his time as executive vice chancellor was not happy. Kelly worked his charms to tamp down a faculty revolt against the new campus in Mission Bay, a run-down neighborhood, unlike the beautiful Parnassus Heights campus near Golden Gate Park. There were lots of committee meetings, and ceremonies. “It was too much nuts and bolts for me, and it’s not what I’m good at,” Kelly said.

So he retired. He bought a sailboat, learned to sail. The plan was to travel with his wife to the South Pacific.

He got as far as Acapulco before he realized the whole thing was a mistake. He missed the intensity of his daily life, and while sailing was a relaxing counterbalance, it wasn’t something he could do all the time. “When you do nothing but sailing, you have no yin for your yang anymore. So it gets boring after a while,” Kelly says. He also was frustrated when meeting people in marinas, who had led fascinating lives, but wouldn’t talk about it. “It was almost like they were in denial about the fact that they had once been interesting people. I realized, they were really just waiting to die. It was depressing. I high-tailed back.”

QB3, founded in 2000 and four years old at that point, was a mess. The previous director, Marvin Cassman, was an outsider brought in from the National Institutes of Health for a job that required a broad base of support within the university and the ability to generate support from state lawmakers. Cassman is “a wonderful man,” Kelly says, but not the right fit. “We asked him to do an impossible job.”

So when Kelly showed interest in coming back to UCSF after his brief retirement, chancellor Mike Bishop asked Kelly to take over at QB3. This was a pretty thankless task, given that the operation was originally conceived to have a $20 million annual operating budget once the Mission Bay facilities were built, which was supposed to put it in the same league as a place like the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, MA.

Instead, the agency got a $1.2 million budget from the state, for one year. All the staff had been laid off. When Kelly started on July 1, 2004, he was the only employee, with just a single laptop … Next Page »

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