Ken Stuart, the Working Class Kid Who Built a Global Health Hotspot at Seattle Biomed
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to join his board, which the elder Gates politely declined, years before the Gates Foundation made global health its mission.
Still, Stuart continued to seek advice from businesspeople on his board, like King, who could help him carry out a bigger ambition. By the late 90s, Stuart said he and board decided they needed to diversify the sources of financing. Seattle Biomed needed to find a bigger new building if it was going to recruit and retain top scientific talent. “I felt like it wasn’t sustainable. We had to bite the bullet and try to become an institute with more capacity, a more substantive institution,” Stuart says.
That meant Stuart would have to spend less time doing science, and more time out in the community telling the story of global health. Often, he did this with small groups of 20 people at a time over lunch or breakfast. Dean Allen, the CEO of McKinstry and a Seattle Biomed board member, was instrumental in opening a lot of doors in the community, Stuart says.
The community outreach helped, but the really big, well-timed break came in 1999. That’s when Seattle Biomed secured a $5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to do some early research work toward a malaria vaccine. The grant itself wasn’t huge, but it was the beginning of an important relationship. The Gates Foundation, the world’s largest philanthropy, was just beginning to coalesce around global health R&D. Lucky for Seattle Biomed, the foundation happened to be located in the same city, and have the same interests. Today, Seattle Biomed now gets almost half (44 percent) of its budget from foundations, with the Gates Foundation at the top of the list. Most of the rest comes from federal grants and contracts.
While the institute was growing into its current form, the work of administering the institute got bigger and more complicated over time. Things really came to a head when Seattle Biomed struck a deal to move into its first modern lab facility, with room for up to 400 people, in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood.
Stuart, like most entrepreneurs, can be a pretty intense guy, but he is capable of relaxing, Myler says. Stuart says he enjoys skiing, watches Mariners games on his DVR, and is working on writing a family history with his brother. Stuart also admits he likes to unwind by watching what he calls “stupid TV shows,” like ABC’s “Modern Family.” He lives in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, just a short drive away from Seattle Biomed. He usually gets in to the office by 7 am, and leaves around 7 pm on a typical day.
Stuart won’t officially hand over day-to-day operations to Aderem until year’s end, but he says he’s excited about getting more immersed in the science that got him started at Seattle Biomed, when it was just a little operation in Issaquah. “My enthusiasm for science has grown,” he says.
Whatever Stuart accomplishes in the lab from here on out, it surely won’t be the last thing Seattle Biomed does. The institute, with its big team of scientists, sleek facility, and diversified funding sources, is in a position to keep fostering global health R&D long after he’s gone. It’s a rare thing, in that most biomedical research centers of this kind tend to hinge on the work of the lone, driven founder, and/or benefit from a single huge donor.
Stuart, who never lost his working-class Boston accent, doesn’t come across as the most introspective guy in interviews. The kid who didn’t think he was college material has now built a mini-empire for global health research. It’s been 35 years in the making, and it might take 35 more before it will really be judged on the kind of progress it makes against scourges like malaria, TB, HIV, African Sleeping Sickness, and other diseases. It’s a powerful motivator, which Stuart still draws on each day.
“I’m driven to create an environment where science can be done and done really well. Not only science, but important science,” Stuart says. “There’s something within me, maybe it’s the Scottish heritage, but I don’t like waste. If you’re going to spend time and effort and other people’s money, you ought to be doing really good and important things with it.”