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. His quest is to usher in the genetic-based era of what he calls P4 medicine, short for predictive, preventive, personalized, and participatory.

First, he still gets by on about four to five hours of sleep at night, he says. When he’s in Seattle, he typically wakes up at 4 am to 5 am, and works a couple hours on his laptop. He then heads downstairs from his condominium in the Pike Place Market neighborhood to the gym, where he runs on a treadmill for 25 minutes and lifts weights for about 10 minutes, he says. He arrives at the office between 7 am and 9 am, and like on the day we met, typically has back-to-back meetings all day. He often has a working lunch brought in to the office, or picks up a bowl of soup across the street at the Essential Baking Company. Usually, he drinks a couple cups of coffee a day, and the occasional latte from Starbucks. But he claims he doesn’t need much artificial stimulation. “I think a lot of the drive comes from the fact that what we’re doing is unbelievably exciting, and it’s really going to change the world,” Hood says.

About one-third of the day is usually dedicated to science, and two-thirds for what he calls “everything else.” He tries to head home by 5 pm or 6 pm. Sometimes he works in the evening at home; other times he doesn’t, and just does some reading and thinking. He and his wife, Valerie Logan, often like to get out and walk downtown, especially to see Impressionist paintings at the Seattle Art Museum. “Downtown Seattle is really fun,” he says.

While he was telling me this, he was swiveling in his office chair, apparently with energy to burn. I asked him to show me his calendar for that day, September 18, and I found it revealing:

—Hood started his day being interviewed by a reporter at Science magazine for an article about networks, for about 40 minutes. “He didn’t know nearly as much about networks as he should if he’s going to write an article. I helped him, and gave him a bunch of references to look up,” he says. (Naturally made me gulp a bit, about whether I, too, was well-enough prepared.)

—Next, he met with Artie Buerk, a former president of Shurgard Storage and the founding partner of Buerk Dale Victor, a venture capital firm in Seattle. “Really interesting guy,” Hood says. “We talked about possible strategic partnering in Singapore among other things.”

—Then, he spoke to someone at the University of Virginia who invited Hood to give a lecture on the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth (Feb. 12, 2009) about the naturalist and evolution. The guy wanted to know what Hood planned to talk about. “I equivocated and told him, I’d put together two alternative scenarios and he could choose from them, so he was happy about that,” Hood says.

—After that, Hood spoke over the phone with Doug Fambrough, a general partner with Oxford Bioscience Partners in Boston. “He’s the son of a really good friend of mine that I went to graduate school with, so I’ve known him since he was a little kid.” The subject turned to Hood’s new company, Integrated Diagnostics. “He was excited about it,” Hood says.

—Next was a conversation with a banker from Bank of America about financing options on ISB’s loan for its building. Hood didn’t say much about that, but he got more animated about the next item on the calendar, a conversation with Baylor Medical Center in Texas about a partnership that will give ISB access to “enormously interesting” patients with autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis. They also have some intellectual property that might be of use to Integrated Diagnostics, so a meeting was scheduled, Hood says.

—Over lunch, he spoke with a couple of ISB faculty members about an introductory textbook on systems biology. The aim is to come up with a book that could be useful for undergraduates in systems biology, mid-level grad students in other disciplines, and medical students. “There are four or five systems biology books out there and they’re all virtually incomprehensible unless you know lots of math,” Hood says.

—In the afternoon, he talked with two co-founders of Integrated Diagnostics, David Galas and Paul Kearney, about how they will fund the company, and possibly set up people in Luxembourg and in the United States. (Hood has formed strong relations in Luxembourg since the government there sponsored a $200 million systems biology initiative earlier this year.)

—Later came a meeting with the ISB’s new general counsel, Cathryn Campbell, and Gary Raisl, the ISB’s vice president for finance and administration. “We talked about how we’re going to regularize ourselves as we move from infancy to adolescence as an organization,” Hood said, with just a slight hint of a mocking tone of voice. “We need to look at what procedures we have to get in place, and things like that,” he says, more matter-of-fact.

Lastly, from 4 pm to 4:45, he sat down with yours truly. Sandwiched somewhere in between all that, he had two science conversations with people in his lab group.

“Oh, and I almost forgot, tonight I’m going to dinner with an old student of mine, Tim Hunkapiller,” Hood says. “He’s going to try to sell me some ABI (Applied Biosystems) next-generation sequencers. We’re going to debate back-and-forth on these things.”

I asked how he goes about his work differently now than he did 20 years ago. “The major change is I have a much bigger vision of what I’d like to do,” Hood says. “Twenty or 30 years ago there was a much more intense focus on the science. We still do very focused science here, but now my global picture is one of the transformation of medicine. I really focus on strategic partnerships.”

My last personal question seemed like a dumb one, but I figured I had to ask: Will he ever retire? “I think I will retire from being president, but I’d always like to do science as long as I can,” Hood says. “I think sometime in the future, and I don’t see it immediately, I would step down and just be a faculty member here and let someone else do these bigger things I’m talking about. But right now I’m having a very good time doing these bigger things.”

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