Q&A: UCSF’s Jeff Bluestone on the Tricky Balancing Act Between Academia and Industry

3/10/11Follow @xconomy

Jeff Bluestone has one of those jobs in academia where you almost expect the guy to wear a flak jacket to work.

As executive vice chancellor and provost, part of the gig is to make sure UCSF’s 2,400 very smart, very strong-willed faculty remain happy, and keep doing world-class work in research and teaching. He also has to make sure ethics rules are being followed. Then there’s the task of trying to prove the institution isn’t just full of ivory tower daydreamers, and delivers on the promise of biomedical research, so that folks in Washington D.C., and the corner offices of Big Pharma, will continue to help pay the bills, especially when budgets are tight.

Bluestone, 57, took on this responsibility about a year ago, joining the new leadership team around Chancellor Susan Desmond-Hellmann, the former president of product development at Genentech. Before taking the job, Bluestone was best known in academia as a world-class diabetes researcher, and as a leader of the well-known Immune Tolerance Network. But Bluestone is also well known in the business world, having served as a scientific advisor to numerous biotech companies over the years, like ViaCyte, MedImmune, Pfizer, Biogen, and XDx. Now through one of the top jobs at UCSF, he has applied his experience in both academia and industry to help craft new institutional partnerships with Pfizer, Sanofi-Aventis, and Bayer.

I have plenty of things I want to ask Bluestone, as he’s one of the featured speakers at Xconomy San Francisco’s big event on the 20-year outlook for Bay Area life sciences, coming up next Wednesday. But before that, I wanted to dive into some issues specific to UCSF that won’t exactly fit into the context of that program. Here are excerpts from our conversation earlier this week, edited for length and clarity as always.

Xconomy: How long have you been at UCSF?

Jeff Bluestone: I’ve been here 10 years. I came from the University of Chicago, which is a great institution with a great tradition of research and clinical care. What’s different here, obviously, is being in this environment. It’s the West Coast, the Bay Area, and it’s full of entrepreneurs. We’re starting companies every week. We’re thinking about how to take our discoveries into drug development. We’re working on novel technologies. It feels and functions very differently out here.

X: Have you noticed much of a cultural change at UCSF now that Sue Desmond-Hellmann has been in there for a little over a year and a half? The impression I get, right or wrong, is that for years UCSF had a reputation of not being friendly to industry, as a difficult place for industry to work with. Do you think something has changed?

JB: I’d say two things. The perception is a misperception. If you think about it, UCSF over the last several decades has been an incredible partner with industry in the Bay Area, from the early Boyer patents that helped start Genentech. We’ve started 50-60 companies over the past 30 years and that’s not counting the 40 or so companies we’ve started in the last couple of years in the incubator. Faculty have been involved with industry, they’ve started companies. But like all public institutions, there has always been a balance of the public good, and making sure to protect the interests of the state, while at the same time allowing investigators to be as entrepreneurial as possible. I think UCSF has struck a good balance.

Sue certainly came to the institution with an understanding … Next Page »

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