Recruit Rock Star Scientists To Make Seattle Thrive as an Innovation Hub

10/1/09

I am quite often asked, in some form or another, “What can [STATE][LOCAL] government do to spur on an innovation-based economy in [SEATTLE][WASHINGTON]?”

Well, as I said on a panel at the Technology Alliance meeting in Leavenworth yesterday, the single biggest correlate to the strength of an innovative biotechnology industry in any geography is the quality of the major research institutions. The two heavyweight biotech hubs are Boston and the San Francisco Bay Area. No surprise there:

—in Boston, there are Harvard, MIT, Tufts, Boston University, and various smaller but world-renowned research institutes such as the Whitehead and the Broad; and,

—in the Bay Area, there are Stanford, UC Berkeley, and UC San Francisco.

Seattle and San Diego probably represent the next tier, with UW, the Hutch, Institute for Systems Biology, and others in Seattle, and UC San Diego, The Scripps Research Institute, Salk Institute, and others in San Diego.

If the quality of the major research institutions is the critical correlate, then anything that can be done to bolster the quality of that research would represent at least one highly fruitful way in which to improve Seattle’s competitiveness as a biotechnology center. One way to bolster research is to create additional funds for researchers already in place, and the state of Washington has already done that with the creation of the Life Sciences Discovery Fund. However, I would argue that an even better use of these or any funds brought to bear in this effort should be utilized instead to attract and endow chairs for “rockstar” researchers who have made their names elsewhere. Doing this is a highly-focused, high-profile activity that will have the ripple effect of bringing with them:

—already established quivers filled with grant funding;

—high-profile reputations, raising the profile and reputation of our research institutions (with many additional ripple effects like future recruitment of faculty and top students); and,

—top-notch students and post-docs.

Done right, this focused approach will do far more, with its continued “ripple-on-a-ripple” effect in the long term to solidify and bolster the productivity and profile of our research institutions than almost anything I have seen that is currently being done here or elsewhere.

One fantastic, if not polarizing, example of this involves Lee Hood’s recruitment to the University of Washington. Without saying much about the who’s and where’s of the people and money behind recruiting a superstar of Lee’s stature from Caltech to start a new department of Molecular Biotechnology at the University of Washington in 1992, nobody can dispute the huge positive effect Lee’s presence has had on biotech in Seattle, reaching well beyond the entrepreneurs and scientists who trained under Lee at UW, the faculty that he played a part in recruiting, and the companies that he and those students and faculty have gone on to start.

If we the people of Washington want Seattle to be a sustainable and robust world center of biotechnology, then we need to let our state and local governments know that they should consider committing long-term funding (endowment) of prestigious chairs and professorships at our research institutions which those institutions can use to attract true impact-making superstars of basic life science research. A handful or two of such hires will go far further to cement and grow the innovation-based biotechnology industry here for decades to come.

[Editor's note: this editorial is also running on the OVP blog.]

Carl Weissman serves as Chairman and CEO of Accelerator, a joint investment vehicle backed by a syndicate of venture capital firms, and as a Managing Director at OVP Venture Partners. Follow @

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  • http://www.lymanbiopharma.com Stewart Lyman

    This is indeed an interesting idea that might be helpful to boost our local biomedical/technology scene. I would agree with you that Lee Hood’s arrival in Seattle had a strong positive effect. The scientist part of me, however, would like to see more data backing up this idea. Inquiring minds want to know: can you point to other high profile hires that provided a similar benefit to the Seattle area? Are there any examples of high profile scientists who were brought to town with big bucks and big expectations that didn’t pan out? I know that venture capitalists like to back enterprises that have a strong track record. So the question is related not only towards the qualifications of these superstar scientists, but to Seattle’s track record of recruiting, keeping, and benefiting from these individuals. You mention that “done right” this approach would be extremely positive, and I have no argument with that. However, how do we ensure that this approach is “done right”?

    The mention of Seattle being second tier to Boston and San Francisco reminded me of how the situation you describe is akin to baseball. Second tier teams are always one slugger or pitcher away from going to the World Series. Enormous sums are invested in the hiring of these key individuals based on the track records they established playing in other cities. Sometimes this works out well. Often, it does not. Remember how Richie Sexson’s bat and Eric Bedard’s left arm were going to lead the Mariners to the Promised Land? I would say that neither acquisition worked out too well, in most people’s judgment. And scientists, like baseball players once their contracts have expired, are free agents, capable of moving on in a flash to the next fat offer that comes their way. Granted, key scientists will not be seriously sidelined from their intellectual pursuits by a torn rotator cuff or ACL, but the subject is worthy of debate. If we indeed have “extra” funds to invest that can be geared towards revitalizing our biomedical complex, what is the best way to use the money?

    Suppose we used some financial resources to change the local Business and Occupation tax rates to attract some Big Pharma players to the area? Would we be an attractive location to recruit these companies to our area? The world-class academic institutions that you mention certainly would be asset in luring these companies to our region. This approach seems to have worked in bringing Russell Investments (with their hundreds of jobs) to Seattle. Having a relatively inexpensive headquarters building available no doubt helped as well. The advantage of this approach is that it brings (in one step) a large number of jobs and, “done right”, should sow the seeds for future growth, much as other local companies have done here. As I have argued in a previous Xconomy piece, having one or more of these companies here will help to create the critical mass that will facilitate the keeping of local scientists in our area if their start-ups fold. At present, many of those who would like to stay in our area are forced to leave due to the dearth of jobs here.

    Carl, thanks for initiating this discussion. Xconomy readers: Thoughts? Advice? Any other ideas for providing a boost to our local biotech/biomedical scene?

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  • http://www.innovationutah.com Michael O’Malley

    In Utah, we’re certainly seeing the “rock star ripple” effect. In March 2006, the state Legislature funded the Utah Science, Technology and Research (USTAR) initiative. One element of USTAR is recruiting leading researchers from out of state to collaborate with existing talent at the University of Utah and Utah State University.

    These two dozen recruits – spanning the fields of energy, neuroscience, digital media, biomedical innovation and more – are rainmakers when it comes to funding. Already in just over two years of having USTAR research teams in place, the rockstar researchers have leveraged the state’s investment on a two-to-one basis in terms of extramural funding. We can also point to four new companies launched and more on the way.

    What’s really exciting to see are the cross-disciplinary efforts that are arising not only between recruited stars, but also with existing innovators. USU can point to an across the board increase in disclosures; administrators indicate USTAR has been the catalyzing factor.

    To continue with the baseball metaphors, our USTAR faculty might be like Reggie Jackson, who allegedly said he was “the straw that stirs the drink.”

  • http://www.lymanbiopharma.com Stewart Lyman

    Michael, thanks for sharing your experience. I see that you coordinate the promotional and public relations efforts of the USTAR program. Do you have any hard numbers to share with Xconomy readers, such as exactly how much money these individuals have brought in since they joined the program, and compare that to what similar faculty members (at the same institutions and at the same point in their careers) have brought in? I can’t tell if your use of the term “collaboration” means that these researchers are working locally with others in Utah, or whether they just visit from time to time. For some of these researchers, it seems they only spend a small part of their time in Utah, which is somewhat different from what I think Carl was proposing. How many of these 24 researchers actually relocated to Utah? It’s great to say that the program appears to be successful, but I’d like to see the metrics and comparators that you use to support this claim. Can you share this information with us? Scientists (like me) always like to see the data.

  • http://louisville.edu/bucksforbrains Andrew Steen

    In 1997 the Kentucky legislature created the Research Challenge Trust Fund, commonly known as “Bucks for Brains.”

    The University of Louisville has used “Bucks for Brains” funds to recruit “rock star” scientists, including at least one with ties back to Dr. Hood in his Caltech days.

  • http://www.innovationutah.com Michael O’Malley

    In response to Stewart’s request for the data, please refer to our October 2009 report to the Utah state legislature, to be found at http://www.innovationutah.com/documents/USTARExecAppropriations101409finalwebv2.pdf

  • http://www.lymanbiopharma.com Stewart Lyman

    Michael, thanks for providing the link to the report on Utah’s experience to date with the USTAR program. I’ve looked through it, and the numbers appear to be very impressive indeed. Most remarkable to me was the claim that the U of Utah experienced 16% growth in overall research awards from 2008 to 2009, with USTAR faculty accounting for 27% of the growth. Before I suggest that Carl launch an effort to poach these superstars from Utah (just kidding), I had a few questions about how these numbers were generated (darn scientists, always asking for more info). According to the table on the Metrics of Success page, research funding at the U of Utah actually dropped from 2007 to 2008 (in the first and second years of the USTAR program) before bouncing up to a large extent in 2009. How much of the 2009 increase in research funding ($49 million) from the previous year ($306 million to $355 million) is specifically due to Federal Stimulus funds? How much represents funds invested by industry? This was a pretty large increase in research funding (16%) not seen in previous years. Secondly, how do you count the research dollars? I noticed that at least one of the USTAR researchers, Dr. Samueal Kaplan, is listed as a fellow of the Synthetic Bio-Manufacturing Center in Utah State, although it also says that he has only committed to spending 3 days per quarter in this capacity. His primary appointment is at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center in Houston. Although funded by USTAR, is grant money that he is getting in Texas counted towards the total of grant money awarded to USTAR researchers? Please share with us any other numbers that you can.
    Let’s look at some comparators here in Seattle. The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center announced on Oct. 5th that it had received $40 million dollars of Federal stimulus money, about a 12% increase in its research funding. As far as I can tell, this number doesn’t include any increases in non-stimulus research grants, nor does it include any money coming from industry. If those numbers were included, I would guess the total percentage increase would be comparable to what is being seen in Utah. In an Xconomy interview on March 23rd, Linden Rhoads, the UW Vice Provost of Technology Transfer, said that the University of Washington expected to pull in $300 million in Federal Stimulus funds, a 30% increase in research funding from the previous year. I presume that this number also doesn’t include any increase in regular (non-stimulus) research dollars or industry dollars, which would add to the total. Granted the University of Washington is a much bigger research institution than the University of Utah, but the percentage increase here is nearly twice as big on a percentage basis as Utah has seen, and we don’t have a USTAR program. A plan to attract research superstars may be a good strategy for our state, but I still haven’t seen the data that convinces me that it would be a worthwhile strategy to pursue. As an alternative suggestion, how about putting some money in to form a non-profit biotech/pharma company, similar to the Institute for One World Health in San Francisco?

  • http://www.innovationutah.com Michael O’Malley

    Stewart – A couple of points:

    Recruiting researchers takes a year or more from initial contact to final agreement/move. The first year of USTAR we did not have any active research teams; we were in the initial recruitment phase. By 2009, we had a sufficient number of teams in place to see a bump in research inflow.

    I’m not employed by the University, so I don’t have access to the detailed data to answer a number of your questions. My sense is that Stimulus funds will represent a higher part of the mix going forward (we have several big proposals pending), but weren’t the major factor in the 2009 jump.

    The U of U figures do include industry-sponsored research but I don’t have the ratio at hand.

    Dr. Kaplan’s Texas funds aren’t included in these numbers, since he is a Fellow rather than a full-time in-state researcher.

  • http://www.lymanbiopharma.com Stewart Lyman

    Michael,thanks for the additional information. What I was really aiming for here was a true apples to apples comparison, and we are not there yet. Since you don’t work for the University of Utah, and I don’t work for the University of Washington, then perhaps we aren’t the best people to vet the detailed numbers that we don’t have access to. Maybe our colleagues at these respective institutions can help sort this out so we can all get an actual measurement of the true cost/job benefits, if any, of projects such as USTAR. Thanks for sharing your experience with the program.

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