Gates gives $70 million for genome work at UW
Seattle Times business reporter
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in the largest donation ever to a Northwest university, today is announcing a $70 million gift to strengthen the University of Washington's already renowned center for human-genome research.
The money will be used to help build a state-of-the-art research building to foster scientific collaboration and lure more star scientists to his hometown, Bill Gates said in an interview.
"This will cement the leadership role the university is in, and holds great promise for pushing forward the contribution that genomics work will make to all kinds of diseases," said Gates, co-founder of Microsoft. "It also shows a commitment on my part, the foundation's part, to keep Seattle pre-eminent in these areas."
Gates said the bulk of his gift, $60 million, will go toward a new building on campus for the Department of Genome Sciences and Department of Bioengineering. The remaining $10 million will be used for genomics projects on diseases of the developing world.
Gates' gift will enable the UW to construct the kind of building that federal research grants don't cover. The entire building will cost $150 million. Other than Gates' gift, it will be built with $12 million in federal money, $10 million from the Whitaker Foundation, which supports biomedical research, plus money from other private sources and bond sales.
Construction is scheduled to begin in August, and the first phase is scheduled to open in the fall of 2005. A news conference is scheduled today for the formal announcement.
"The way it works," Gates said, "is a few places gather a lot of the great scientists, and that's where they get the grants and the equipment. You end up with three or four places that really do the best work. Almost anybody would put Seattle on the list in genomics as one of the three or four places where there's a lot of work going on. It's a leader, and I believe this community will stay a leader."
The gift is more than five times the size of the one Gates made in 1991 to attract gene-sequencing pioneer Dr. Leroy Hood from Cal Tech to the UW, a landmark event in the region's emergence as a biotech center.
Hood left the UW in late 1999 to found the nonprofit Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, but the UW School of Medicine has since been on a roll.
Two years ago, the UW won $30 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health to establish two of the nation's three "Centers of Excellence" in genomics. The third is at Yale University.
Months later, two UW researchers were named among the eight most influential leaders of the Human Genome Project, the worldwide scientific collaboration to map and sequence the human genetic code. Then last summer, the university recruited a third person on that elite list when Dr. Robert Waterston accepted the new chair of its Department of Genome Sciences.
Waterston, who led one of the largest chunks of gene-sequencing work at Washington University in St. Louis, is considered by scientists to be in the same league as more famous scientists such as Dr. Craig Venter, the former head of a private company that raced with the public genome project.
Dr. Philip Green, one of the UW's top computational biologists and genomics leaders, said Waterston is the kind of leader with magnetic pull for scientists around the world, particularly because he keeps his mind on science instead of spending all his time on "power games" as an administrator.
Although the Human Genome Project has been his life's work, Waterston said in an interview the project has not yet lived up to the hype. He called the next stage of research, a critical one for using the genome in human health, "an exploratory phase."
For example, Waterston said the genomes of humans and malaria parasites have been sequenced, but now scientists need to look at more daunting problems about how proteins, the cellular workhorses, interrelate. Scientists will also want to learn how some people develop resistance, or why some respond better to vaccines than others.
And though the Human Genome Project had a clearly defined goal of mapping the book of life, Waterston said, it will be critical in the coming era to ask the right questions going forward, and set the right research priorities to advance human health.
Waterston said one of his first jobs is to recruit more scientists, which he now believes will be easier.
The new Gates-funded building will bring 20 existing faculty members together, he said, and have room for another 14 recruited from around the world, with space for a total of 300 to 400 people when including graduate students and staff.
"This is an amazing statement of the importance of this area," Waterston said. "I'm confident that this is the place."
Dr. Paul Ramsey, the dean of the UW School of Medicine who has been involved in plans to expand research at the Gates-funded building and at South Lake Union, said few outside the region realize it, but the school has been emerging for a long time. UW snagged $431 million in federal health-research grants in fiscal 2002, making it the second-biggest recipient of such grants behind Harvard. Grant money has been climbing by an average of more than 17 percent per year over the past decade, he said.
Ramsey said the new Gates-funded building, and a proposed campus at South Lake Union, will add a combined 1 million square feet for research.
Ramsey said the UW has risen and won so many grants because it has a longstanding culture of research collaboration across disciplines like computer science, engineering, biology and clinical medicine.
The university has long-standing relationships with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and many local biotech companies. Ramsey said collaborative spirit is a regional edge, in a field that's notoriously competitive and cutthroat for money and fame.
In the past two decades of breakneck competition to learn more, Boston and San Francisco have emerged as the undisputed leaders.
They have outdistanced Seattle in key measurements such as number of research institutions, number of doctorates awarded, number of companies formed, number of biotech employees, venture capital and corporate investment in research and development.
Ramsey said the UW and Seattle's unusual blend of skills in computation, biology and clinical medicine has it well-positioned in a future where collaboration is a must.
"Seattle is very well positioned to be one of the handful of global leaders in the next step of research following the Human Genome Project," Ramsey said.
It also could put Seattle in the cross hairs of the pharmaceutical industry. Drug companies have been pouring money into leading research hubs just to nestle next to world-class academic scientists. Swiss drug maker Novartis has said it plans to invest $4 billion in research and development over the next decade in Cambridge, Mass., to be near Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
One major drug company already has a toehold here — Merck bought Kirkland-based Rosetta Inpharmatics two years ago, then decided to move the operation into a new building at South Lake Union to be near the Hutchinson Center and the UW.
Jeff Brotman, UW Regent and co-founder of Costco Wholesale, said he's convinced that biomedical research may be one of the few industries that can rev up Seattle's economic future and believes the Gates gift will be a "transformational event."
He's out trying to make another one happen by raising $60 million from the business community to help the UW lease space in South Lake Union. Fund raising has not been easy with a sluggish stock market, but Brotman said he is about one-sixth of the way toward the goal.
To push his case, Brotman says that when the UW School of Medicine's expansion into the Gates-funded building and South Lake Union is complete, the school's number of employees will rise from about 14,000 to 24,000 people, and they will earn a combined annual payroll of about $2 billion. That would place the impact of UW medical research, in terms of jobs and payroll, on a par with Microsoft in Washington, he said.
"This will have a tremendous catalytic effect," Brotman said. "If we can combine all of this with South Lake Union, it will change the face of Seattle from an economic standpoint."
Gates said his gift is a rare one that's intended to support his interests in the Northwest, education and the future of medicine. He said he has read papers by the UW scientists, met some of them and spent a lot of time with Ramsey.
"I admire him quite a bit, and all the different scientists here," he said.
Gates, the world's richest man, also has a personal connection to medical advances. He saw some new drugs for breast cancer were on the cusp of becoming available when his mother, Mary, a former UW Regent, died of the disease in 1994.
"Certainly advances in cancer make you think about people you care about who could have been saved if the technology was there," Gates said. "It would be great if progress was made there. If you think of the next 20 years, I'm confident those kind of advances will take place."
Luke Timmerman: 206-515-5644 or firstname.lastname@example.org