Leroy Hood Sizes Up South Lake Union as Institute for Systems Biology Expands

3/10/10Follow @xconomy

[Clarification: 3:35 pm, 4/2/10] Leroy Hood‘s eye is turning from the north to the south side of Seattle’s Lake Union. The biotechnology pioneer and his colleagues at the Institute for Systems Biology are looking for new digs that are twice as big as their 65,000 square foot facility on the north side of the lake, Hood says.

“We just don’t have enough space. It’s an ideal building, we love the location, and the view of the city is terrific,” Hood says. “But we need twice as much space.”

He added: “We are thinking seriously about moving to South Lake Union. In all probability, it will be the old Rosetta building there.”

He’s talking about the fancy facility developed in 2004 by a joint venture of Schnitzer West and Vulcan Real Estate to house the Rosetta Inpharmatics unit of Merck. [Clarification: a previous version of the story omitted Schnitzer West.] That cutting-edge biology and computing facility had room for about 300 employees, but it has been much quieter since the fall of 2008 when Merck said it was shutting down that operation as part of global cost cuts. Hood never worked there, but he was partly responsible for its creation, since he was a co-founder of Rosetta back in the mid-90s with Stephen Friend and Lee Hartwell.

Few people in Seattle know much about Hood’s nonprofit research center, and it puzzles more than a few biologists, but it has definitely been on a roll the past couple years. The basic idea for the Institute, which Hood co-founded with Alan Aderem and Reudi Aebersold in 2000, is to use high-powered computers to study complex networks of genes and how they interact, rather than the traditional ways of biology that Hood says are too narrow, looking at one gene, or one protein in isolation. He says the holistic approach of studying entire biological systems will lead science down the path to a historic attitude shift from reactively treating disease to what he calls “P4 medicine,” or predictive, preventive, personalized, and participatory medicine.isblogo3

The Institute is known as a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity, having spawned the Accelerator, Seattle-based NanoString Technologies, Integrated Diagnostics, and an intriguing partnership with Mountain View, CA-based Complete Genomics to sequence 100 entire human genomes. But none of those for-profit efforts have generated windfall profits that could provide the comfort, of, say, an endowment to support the nonprofit institute for decades to come.

One of the watershed moments for the Institute came in June 2008 when it scored a five-year, $100 million commitment from the government of Luxembourg. In January, an independent review of research institutes around the world said the Institute for Systems Biology produced the highest impact scientific publications of any U.S. research center from 2003 through 2007. And just this week, the Institute said it received a $6 million gift from an unnamed California venture capitalist to further its research in personalized medicine, biofuels, and global health.

It’s all starting to add up to a growth curve that few biotech companies in town can match. The Institute had 230 employees, and an annual budget of $35 million, when Hood gave a talk about it in February 2009 at a Technology Alliance event. One year later, it has 300 employees, and an annual budget of $45 million, Hood says. The Institute’s strategic plan over the coming five to eight years is to add eight to 10 new faculty members, bringing the faculty roster to 20, with a staff of 400 to 450 people, operating with a “substantially” bigger budget, Hood says.

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