Leroy Hood & Team Walk into South Lake Union With Plans to Grow

8/18/10Follow @xconomy

Leroy Hood is a walker. Now the biotech pioneer is going to be able to walk around in a very productive way.

Once Hood and the rest of the Institute for Systems Biology team moves to South Lake Union next spring, he will be able to walk around the halls of a single building with more than enough room for his entire team at the nonprofit institute. He can also walk to meet most of the top biologists in Seattle at a half-dozen institutions, all within a 10-minute radius. He could even leave his Toyota Prius at home and walk all the way to work, if he wants.

“From our Belltown condo, it’s probably about a 20 to 25-minute walk,” Hood says, referring to his new office at the former Rosetta Inpharmatics building in South Lake Union. “I might do it.”

Hood, who has more energy at age 71 than a lot of entrepreneurs in their 30s, told me almost two years ago in a profile that he’s doing some of the most exciting work in his storied career. Today he talked about moving into a new home that will really allow his Institute to spread its wings like never before. Hood, a pioneer of the genomics age and a co-founder of 14 biotech companies at last count, has channeled most of his energy the past decade into his vision of “P4 Medicine” at the nonprofit institute. This effort struggled at times in its early years to get the financing Hood and co-founders Reudi Aebersold and Alan Aderem dreamed of, but it has been on such a roll the past couple years that Paul Allen’s Vulcan Real Estate considered it a creditworthy replacement to move into the building that formerly housed Merck’s Rosetta Inpharmatics unit.

The move was partly made because of necessity. The Institute for Systems Biology had outgrown its headquarters near Gas Works Park on the north shore of Lake Union, which forced it to move administrative staff to a neighboring building in Fremont that was about a 10-minute walk away. For an institution that prides itself on fostering cross-disciplinary team science, to tackling problems that are far more complicated than traditional studies of one gene or one protein at a time, getting split up like that was really untenable, to hear Hood tell the story.

As the Institute was getting started in 2000, it ran into major roadblocks when it was crammed into a too-small facility near the University of Washington, along Roosevelt Way. The team needed to be split in two buildings, Hood says. Aderem, quoted in the Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce in 2002, called the old facility a “rabbit warren.”

“It was a disaster,” Hood says.

That problem was solved, for a few years anyway, at the Institute’s new building at North Lake Union. The nonprofit Institute moved into a state-of-the-art 65,000 square foot facility in 2001, with postcard views of Lake Union and the downtown skyline. It’s such a distinctive view that Hood had his official biography picture taken with that view in the backdrop.

“I’ve always loved the views here,” Hood says. “I’ll miss it.”

But over the past couple years, as the Institute grew to test its “P4 Medicine” ambitions with a $100 million, five-year line of support from the government of Luxembourg, some of the same organizational problems cropped up as in the early days. Hood says he didn’t like having the administrative staff move out of the headquarters building, just so there would be room for the scientists. Having the team spread among two buildings was manageable, for a while anyway. “It was less of a disaster,” Hood says. “But I’d like to bring everybody back together again.”

Now the Institute is gearing up for the move into the Rosetta building at 401 Terry Avenue North, which has 140,000 square feet of space—double the current facility’s capacity—which will have room for 330 ISB employees and more to come in the future. This will enable all the scientists and the administrative side of the Institute to be under the same roof again. The building will also be able to accommodate the Institute as it grows over the next five years, Hood says. The plan is to grow the faculty roster from 12 today to about 20 over the next six to 10 years, he says. The Institute plans to recruit more top talent from the ranks of biologists, technology developers, and computer scientists, Hood says. The new facility will offer more room for equipment to study metabolomics, and to perform sophisticated imaging experiments—a couple of capabilities that are lacking at the Institute, Hood says.

What might even be most important is the ability to do all that walking around mentioned above. When I asked Hood about the benefits of being able to walk to meet scientific peers—rather than get in a car from North Lake Union and drive 10 to 15 minutes and then find parking—he agreed that it makes a difference in facilitating interactions. He noted that parking can be a hassle in South Lake Union, but he’s excited about being within walking distance of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, the University of Washington’s South Lake Union labs, the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute, Amazon’s new headquarters, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s new headquarters that’s under construction.

The move should take place in April, Hood says. It shouldn’t be too disruptive to ongoing experiments, he says. “We’ve done it before,” Hood says.

For an Institute that had plenty of critics in its early days, it’s really quite a statement that Hood & team were able to pull this off. In its early days, the Institute was written off as “just a crazy way to raise money,” by skeptics of the whole systems biology movement. It’s true that Hood’s bold vision of taking pinpricks of blood and extracting rich digital information on a person’s health and wellness hasn’t yet gained traction in the healthcare system. And anyone who says they know when this might happen is probably full of baloney.

Still, the ISB has secured enough competitive federal grants, and donations, to support a $50 million annual budget, and a growth plan to go to 500 employees in the next decade. When Paul Allen’s Vulcan looked for something to fill the void created by a gold-standard tenant like Merck, with billions in free cash flow, it apparently considered the books of the Institute for Systems Biology sound enough to be able to make rent payments on a trophy property for years to come.

“The ISB is really in strong financial shape,” Hood says. “This growth will let us push our vision of P4 Medicine further, in more effective ways. It’s a terrific opportunity.”

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