From Tech to Biotech: Former Corbis CEO Steve Davis Tackles Global Health With IDRI

7/25/08Follow @xconomy

Steve Davis got some funny looks in May after word spread of his latest career move. The former CEO of Corbis, the digital image company backed by Bill Gates, has a reputation as a strategic thinker in Seattle’s business and community circles. He serves on the boards of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, PATH, and The Seattle Foundation. He spent almost two decades of his life in technology, building Corbis into a global player with 1,000 employees.

So why would Davis, 50, leave that high-profile gig and re-surface as the interim CEO of the Seattle-based Infectious Disease Research Institute? IDRI is a big name to experts in vaccines and diagnostics at the World Health Organization and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, but it is practically invisible around town. It is working on some of the biggest challenges in global health, vaccines for malaria and tuberculosis, and against lesser-known killers like leishmaniasis and Chagas Disease.

“Some people thought, ‘Oh, here’s some middle-aged guy who’s made some money and now he’s giving back,” Davis says on an interview at his office at IDRI. He a bit annoyed by that sentiment, since he studied human rights as far back as law school, and has given 20 percent of his time to non-profit work, even during his 90-hour weeks at Corbis.

“I’ve been engaged in this for 30 years,” he says.

That’s why the move didn’t surprise people who know him well, like Ken Myer, president and CEO of the Washington Technology Industry Association. “Steve is a really capable guy in a lot of areas. He’s a guy who doesn’t want to be put in a labeled box, and he’s always looking to stretch himself and do things that are meaningful.”

Davis was mulling several options this spring when he got a call from Rick Klausner, the former head of global health at the Gates Foundation, and now a partner with The Column Group, a venture firm. Klausner was working with IDRI’s founder, Steve Reed, on plans for him to start a new vaccine company, Immune Design, which was going to leave a leadership void at IDRI. Klausner described it as a “great opportunity,” a place with cutting-edge science. The institute’s board and advisers were also pushing Reed to think more about long-term leadership structures, Davis says.

Davis is no scientist, which certainly makes it hard to grasp the nuances of adjuvants for boosting the effectiveness of vaccines. He already had a lot of commitments, but he agreed to take on the leadership role temporarily … Next Page »

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