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Rockefeller Taps Yale Genetics Chief Richard Lifton As New President

Xconomy New York — 

Rockefeller University has named a replacement for its outgoing president Marc Tessier-Lavigne. Will the newcomer, famed Yale University geneticist Richard Lifton, be a ringleader for New York biotech like his predecessor?

Late yesterday, Rockefeller filled the void left by Tessier-Lavigne, who is heading west to run Palo Alto, CA-based Stanford University in September. Rockefeller, based in the heart of Manhattan, named as its its 11th president the 62-year-old Lifton, whom board of trustees chair Russell Carson called a “unanimous first choice.”

“I am thrilled to join Rockefeller University’s remarkably vibrant and unique scientific community,” Lifton said in a statement. “I look forward to helping shape the bright future of this great university.”

Rockefeller was by formed philanthropist and oil magnate John D. Rockefeller in 1901, becoming America’s first institution devoted exclusively to biomedical research. It conducts both clinical and basic research in areas like genetics, molecular biology, neurosciences, and immunology, and 24 of its scientists have won Nobel Prizes.

Citing his national and international prominence, Carson said in a statement that Lifton is a “strong, persuasive advocate for the importance of science in improving human health and society.”

Lifton comes to Rockefeller with an impressive resumé. He’s a Dartmouth College alum with a graduate degree from Stanford. He’s been a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator since 1994, and was one of the key decision makers behind President Obama’s Precision Medicine Initiative, co-chairing its planning committee. Lifton has been at Yale, in New Haven, CT, since 1993. He began as an assistant professor and worked his way up to head the university’s genetics department in 2009. He’s also won several prestigious science awards, such as a $3 million Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences in 2014, for his work on the genetic underpinnings of hypertension.

“While his departure is a major loss for the School of Medicine, this is a wonderful opportunity both for Rick and for [Rockefeller],” Yale School of Medicine dean Robert Alpern said in a separate statement.

Lifton has big shoes to fill. During his five-year stint at Rockefeller, Tessier-Lavigne helped the New York biotech startup community gain traction beyond the city’s traditional academic and clinical centers. Despite that strong base to work with, New York for decades had failed to foster a local biotech industry while clusters in San Francisco, Boston, San Diego, and Seattle blossomed.

Tessier-Lavigne’s credibility as a former Genentech executive helped push forward a number of academic-industry partnerships like the Tri-Institutional Therapeutics Discovery Institute and the New York Genome Center.

Tessier-Lavigne also had his hands on a number of different initiatives, including the New York City Economic Development Corp.’s $150 million life sciences fund. As Eric Gertler, the former executive vice president of the NYCEDC told Xconomy in February, Tessier-Lavigne “provided a clear vision for the future of biotech in the city.”

New York’s biotech community will now watch to see if Lifton can play a similar outward-looking role.