Allan Jones, the Force Behind Paul Allen’s Vision for Brain Science
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the violin when he was five, and was serious about it all the way through high school, when he ended up as the second-ranked violin player in the state his senior year. He seldom plays anymore, he says.
As the valedictorian in a high school class of about 400 students, Jones had a lot of options on what to do besides music. He started showing interest in biology in high school. Coming from a small Midwestern city, he says the Ivy League schools turned him off as too stuffy. He looked for top schools that weren’t in that category or in California and settled on Duke University, without even making a campus visit, which he calls “an arbitrary decision.”
Once on campus in Durham, NC, Jones soon started becoming very focused on building a career in biology, and rolling up his sleeves in the lab. His freshman year, he recalls showing up at labs and eagerly inquiring about any jobs he could do, only to be turned away because he lacked experience. He persisted, finally getting a lab job his sophomore year, which gave him a management lesson he remembered later. “In any kind of team building, it’s so much more about attitude than it is about a skill set you can write down on paper. If somebody comes to you very eager to do something, that counts for a lot in my book,” Jones says.
While majoring in biology, he was drawn to much of what was happening outside the classroom, spending as much as 30 hours a week working on all kinds of lab tasks as an undergrad. Harvard University was an option for him for graduate school, but Jones says he was turned off by the attitude of the professors. It was the early 1990s, and he ended up looking for a place to pursue top-notch biology with a lifestyle more like that of his upbringing.
“After living as a poor undergrad, in shared housing, as much as I wanted to go to a good school, I also wanted a good quality of life,” Jones says. That led him to Washington University in St. Louis.
Wash U was then, and still remains, a hotbed of genetics research. Robert Waterston and Maynard Olson, two of the founders of the Human Genome Project, were on the faculty. “I basically watched the Genome Project being born there,” Jones says.
As a grad student, Jones was able to pursue his curiosity in everything from basic genetics to plant biology. He ended up focusing much of his time there on C. elegans, where he had a lot of freedom to build up diverse skills in the discovery of genes, cloning, sequencing of mutations, and developing antibodies to bind with proteins that were encoded by the genes.
He got his PhD in genetics and developmental biology in 1995, and moved on to a short stint as a postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania, studying plant biology. Jones grew discouraged by the lack of funding for the discipline, so he left for industry, in a small diagnostics startup near Philadelphia called Avitech. He recalls some “crazy” demanding work conditions, in which he’d regularly ride Amtrak to visit a collaborator at Johns Hopkins University with wet lab facilities the company lacked. But he was hooked. “I liked the discipline that you find in companies, and that you don’t find in academia,” Jones says.
Avitech ended up running out of money. The CEO, Chris Earl, ended up going to work for billionaire investor George Soros, who was an early investor in Kirkland, WA-based Rosetta Inpharmatics. Earl introduced Jones to Rosetta CEO Stephen Friend, and Jones liked what he heard—he flew out to Seattle to join the company as employee No. 56 in August 1998. Rosetta, which ended up being bought by Merck for more than $600 million in 2001, was fast emerging as a hothouse for scientific talent.
“I learned a lot about bringing in great talent to different disciplines, rather than try to get a lot of utility players and people who are jacks of all trades,” Jones says. “We knew that if you want to study data, go get a physicist. If you want to do engineering, get a serious engineer, don’t mess around.”
Jones moved around the organization a lot, and his job title … Next Page »