Ken Stuart, the Working Class Kid Who Built a Global Health Hotspot at Seattle Biomed
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to secure another $10,000 loan, which he needed to buy a centrifuge. When he applied for a pair of additional grants—at a time when only the top 7 percent of applications were getting funded—he hit gold on both applications. Since he only expected to get one of the grants, he took the extra money and used it to hire four young postdocs.
Suddenly, the little institute, originally called the Issaquah Group for Health and Environmental Research, was a real operating entity. Stuart says Shearer left after a couple years, when her interest shifted more toward environmental carcinogens. But some of the young people who came in the early days, like Stuart, had a lot of fire in the belly for their research, and confidence that they could keep winning competitive NIH grants, even without being part of a major name-brand academic center. One of the postdocs who arrived in 1982, Peter Myler, remains on the faculty at Seattle Biomed. Another, Steve Reed, went on to found his own research center, the Infectious Disease Research Institute, as well as co-found a couple of local biotech companies—Corixa and Immune Design.
The work environment allowed, and essentially required, everyone there to be extremely focused and committed, Stuart says. It was not the kind of place for someone seeking a lot of job security, since federal research grants can ebb and flow. But King, the former board member, said Stuart found a niche that enabled him to flourish.
“Ken is very entrepreneurial. He enjoyed being his own boss. My sense was that conventional faculty positions, although he was certainly qualified, didn’t interest him,” King says. “He wanted to call his own shots. He’s a very tenacious guy.”
That tenacity, and Stuart’s growing list of peer-reviewed publications, helped attract others with similar drive and determination, Stuart says.
“In the early days, things were pretty seat-of-the-pants,” says Myler, a researcher who joined the institute in 1982. “Ken would help with building the benches, and nitty-gritty day-to-day stuff. It’s a bit different from CEO person you might see these days.”
By the mid-1980s, Stuart and his colleagues were tired of commuting in to seminars at the University of Washington, and they felt isolated in Issaquah. So the decision was made to move into the city. Partly in an effort to keep costs down, Seattle Biomed teamed up with another global health nonprofit, PATH, to share a building along Nickerson Street. The institute dropped Issaquah from its name, and became Seattle Biomedical Research Institute.
The institute continued to develop its reputation for doing top scientific work, as its staff grew to around 70 to 80 people. The researchers kept winning grants from federal sources, but Stuart felt like it needed to do something more to go to another level. Not everyone got along, and not everyone stayed. Stuart had “strong opinions” about how science should be done, Myler says, and shared them. And even though Stuart is more of a big-picture, visionary kind of guy, and not extremely detail-oriented, he sometimes had to resist the urge to micromanage.
“He’s a very strong personality. If you can deal with him person to person and stand up to his strong personality, you can get along well,” Myler says. “If you’re the type of person who’s meek and mild, it can be difficult at times. He and I would sometimes get into heated discussions. But when that was done, it was done.”
Stuart, being focused on his research, realized pretty early that he would need to make connections in the business community. He recalls once reading a newspaper feature story about business movers and shakers in Seattle, and using that as a guide for people to get to know. He invited Bill Gates Sr. … Next Page »