Ken Stuart, the Working Class Kid Who Built a Global Health Hotspot at Seattle Biomed

7/20/11Follow @xconomy

One of Seattle’s leading scientific entrepreneurs grew up in a working-class home in which neither parent went to college. Ken Stuart‘s family didn’t have enough money to send him to one of the many universities in his hometown of Boston.

When he graduated high school, he had no idea what would come next.

“I wasn’t sure I’d even go to college,” Stuart says. “I never applied. I was sick of school.”

After waiting all the way until May of his senior year, Stuart ended up talking his way into Northeastern University at the last minute and finding a co-op job to help pay the bills. Once there, he got hooked on biology. He soon got on the fast track, and could have had a tenured university faculty job, but decided early on that wasn’t enough. By combining a curiosity for some obscure fields of biology, some entrepreneurial spirit, and really good timing, Stuart ended up building a mini-global health empire at the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute.

Now at 70, after 35 years of building up Seattle Biomedical Research Institute from scratch into a research hotspot with 365 employees and a $52 million annual budget, Stuart is handing over day-to-day leadership to a successor, Alan Aderem. Stuart now says he’s looking forward to returning to more of the science that got him so fired up in the first place.

“There are very few people with the dynamic range to grow an organization from nothing to the state where Seattle Biomed is now,” says John King, a former Merck and Rosetta Inpharmatics executive who served on the institute’s board in the ’80s and ’90s. “Ken learned on the job how to be a startup guy, how to bootstrap an institute based on scientific excellence. He grew into doing things like sophisticated fundraising, marketing—all the kind of things big research institutes have to do.”

Stuart’s journey started in an unusual place. He was born in December 1940, and grew up the youngest of four sons in a working class home in Brighton, MA. His father was a house painter, and his mother was a stay-at-home mom. Stuart found himself interested in the stacks of books that his family kept at home, but he says he wasn’t much of a student. Grammar school was “incredibly easy and boring,” he says.

Stuart didn’t find much that interested him in high school science either, except for physics. It was hard to see where that might lead, though, since Stuart never really saw himself as college-bound. It all changed that one day in May of his senior year, when he recalls going to the school in person, and asking to meet with the dean of admissions. After getting an incredulous look from the secretary, who told him the fall class was full, Stuart persisted in seeing the dean. Within about 10 minutes, he had persuaded the dean to let him in, largely because Stuart had gone to a competitive public high school, he says.

This was the late ’50s, years after Watson and Crick had made the pioneering discovery of the structure of DNA, igniting the modern era of molecular biology. Looking back, Stuart says that moment was lost on him. He found biology more from his personal reading, of a number of books at home that his father accumulated. Pretty soon, Stuart found himself spending long hours not just in the libraries at Northeastern, but at Harvard and MIT libraries, which had reciprocity agreements with Stuart’s school just a few miles across the Charles River. Everything from physiology to biochemistry to frog embryo development, he gobbled up.

“I started studying intensively. I liked it,” Stuart says.

Textbooks soon weren’t enough, and Stuart says he really found his passion … Next Page »

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  • Somaia

    I like the story of this man.
    He is very persistant
    i want to be one of his students