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Thursday, April 25, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Creating a 'hothouse' for bioscience research

Seattle Times business reporter

When Dr. Leroy Hood sits down to talk about his latest ambition, he takes all of 10 seconds to warm up.

"I think we'll lead the way toward revolutionizing new ways of understanding biology," he said.

Hood can be so bold because at 63, he is a world-renowned biotechnology star, the man who led the team at CalTech that made the Human Genome Project possible. His résumé as an entrepreneur includes hit companies such as Amgen, Applied Biosystems and Rosetta Inpharmatics.

But Hood's enthusiasm these days has been limited by finances. More than two years after an unceremonious exit from the University of Washington, he has been scrounging for money. And his newest vision — using high-speed computers to turn the DNA jumble into something useful for predicting and preventing disease — requires lots of money.

Traditionally, genes and proteins have been painstakingly studied one at a time. Hood's bet on faster, more comprehensive methods has taken shape in the Institute for Systems Biology, a nonprofit research organization where he leads 170 scientists in new offices and labs overlooking North Lake Union.

Institute for Systems Biology


Founded: January 2000

Leaders: Dr. Leroy Hood, Dr. Ruedi Aebersold and Dr. Alan Aderem

Located: Seattle

Employees: 170

Funding: Federal grants, contracts and industrial partnerships worth $50 million

What it does: Applies computing power to vast strings of DNA with the goal of finding ways to predict and prevent disease.

The institute's founding premise was that a nonprofit company could be the ideal format for a scientific hothouse. It can be fueled by private-sector cash and be free to cut deals with industry and academia, without pressure to make short-term profit. It also is free from university and state regulations and from resistance to working with people in other departments, which Hood considers essential to the future of biology and medicine.

Similar concepts are being pushed at the UW, other top universities, and within the biotech and pharmaceutical industries. For Hood, it has been a hard sell.

He has not met his goal of raising $200 million for an endowment. By the end of its first year, the institute had $8 million in assets and now has only $50 million in committed money. Hood blames the shortfall on the stock-market crash that began in March 2000, and on Sept. 11.

To survive, the institute must rely on working with industrial partners and hunting for federal grants, Hood says. He is trying to raise money in "bite-sized chunks." Hood pumped in $5 million of his own money last year to keep the institute going, Internal Revenue Service records show. He has not gotten money from major biotech financiers like Paul Allen or Bill Gates, who personally recruited Hood to the UW in 1991 with a $12 million gift.

The money situation isn't Hood's favorite subject.

"Do we still plan to raise the money? Yes," he said. "Do I think I can do it quickly? Absolutely not. But this place is going to be a catalyst for the biological sciences in Seattle."

Hood's arrival at the UW was expected to attract world-class scientists to Seattle and put the region on the biotech map. Both predictions came true, but Hood left the university in December 1999 amid some hard feelings.

Critics say the university worked hard to accommodate Hood's requests for resources and his frustrations with university procedures, but that he spurned the efforts and took some top scientists with him. Now Hood is in the awkward position of sometimes partnering and sometimes competing with the UW for scientists and money.

Dr. Christopher Wilson, chairman of the UW department of immunology, said it's too early to judge the institute's progress or tell whether it will succeed.

"Lee's in a position now to move things quickly, and he can still relate to the UW," Wilson said. "If they can enrich the scientific climate here, that's wonderful."

Alvin Kwiram, a former vice provost for research still tied to the UW, said Hood and the university would have had more resources and stronger programs if they had been able to patch up their differences.

"We had a superb opportunity here, which neither one of us will be able to fulfill in the near term, and that's disappointing," Kwiram said.

The institute's progress has been hard to measure.

Observers say Hood has recruited well. Dr. Ruedi Aebersold, a co-founder, is a world leader in understanding how proteins interact in the body, and Dr. Alan Aderem, another co-founder, is a world leader in immunology. Experts from biology, computer science, mathematics, physics, chemistry and even astrophysics have been drawn to the institute. Their central focus is that biology is an information science, with genes functioning like digital code in computers.

One significant challenge, Hood said, is cutting through each discipline's jargon. To break down social barriers, scientists from different fields sit next to people they otherwise might not talk to.

The institute has attracted high-profile partners. Pharmaceutical giant Merck has contributed $5 million, and close ties have been forged with Amgen; the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center; a federally-funded supercomputing center in Fairbanks, Alaska; and the University of Washington. The institute has spun out three companies and it continues Hood's work to improve K-12 science education.

Hood appears much younger and more fit than most men his age, gets by on four to six hours sleep a night and amazes colleagues with his energy. He said he intends to lead the institute for four to six more years and may create another company or two.

As he continues the hunt for financing, Hood is emphasizing a long-term vision, one that doesn't just revolve around him.

"The (institute) is about a new way of doing science, and young people that are changing the world," Hood said. "It's so much bigger than one person."

Luke Timmerman can be reached at 206-515-5644 or ltimmerman@seattletimes.com.

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