Leroy Hood, Turning 70, Still Aims to Accomplish “The Most Ambitious Things of My Career”

10/10/08Follow @xconomy

It’s hard to believe Leroy Hood—a guy busy enough to employ not one, but two full-time executive assistants—is turning 70 today. But it’s true.

This milestone seemed to be as good a reason as any to catch up with the biotechnology pioneer. So I stopped by his office at the Institute for Systems Biology (ISB) along North Lake Union in Seattle for a 45-minute interview last month. I gathered some revealing insights into his life, and walked away thinking that while business executives his age are usually put out to pasture, Hood has more fire in the belly than ever.

“I’m doing the most ambitious things, by far, that I’ve ever done in my career. Right now,” Hood says.

For those who don’t already know, Hood is recognized around the world for leading the team at Caltech in the 1980s that invented the high-speed DNA sequencing machines that made the Human Genome Project possible. Hood has won some of the world’s highest honors for invention, like the Lemelson-MIT Prize, Kyoto Prize, and Lasker Award. He’s also co-founded 13 companies by his count in a recent essay, including Amgen, Applied Biosystems, and Rosetta Inpharmatics.

To celebrate his life, and to dream of what’s still to come, about 300 friends are gathering in Seattle tonight for an invitation-only gala dinner at the W Hotel downtown. Some of biology’s biggest names, like Harvard’s George Church and Stanford’s Irving Weissman, are scheduled to be there. There will also be a 10-minute video tribute to Hood’s life, featuring interviews with his family, colleagues, and a video appearance from Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, who recruited Hood to the University of Washington from Caltech in 1992.

This will not be about a bunch of graybeards telling old war stories (although I do hope to hear a few good ones when I stop by there tonight.) Much of the discussion will revolve around ideas being pursued at Hood’s ISB, a nonprofit research center he co-founded in 2000 with Alan Aderem and Reudi Aebersold. It’s designed to be a hothouse for cross-disciplinary scientists trying to push the frontiers of biomedical research, largely by using computers to sort through vast amounts of genomic data. Hood has been busy forming all sorts of collaborations this year with partners who have a need for ISB’s skills.

Just in the last few weeks, ISB has formed a partnership with Swedish Neuroscience Institute in Seattle to study the genomes of brain tumor samples, and has made a deal to fully sequence more than 100 human genomes in 2009 with Mountain View, CA-based Complete Genomics. Hood has unveiled plans to Xconomy for a new company called Integrated Diagnostics which will spot tiny cancers in the blood while they are at their most treatable stage. And just yesterday, ISB announced another big deal, a $14 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to study how the immune system interacts with dangerous pathogens like H5N1 bird flu.

Like the voter in New Hampshire who famously asked Hillary Clinton about how she holds up on the campaign trail, I wanted to know how Hood does it, at age 70. … Next Page »

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