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BioCommerce Week Q&A: Lee Hood on Innovation, Technology, and Systems

To get a picture of the changes that will affect the molecular biology tools market, all roads lead to Seattle, the home of the four-year-old Institute for Systems Biology and 64-year-old Lee Hood, co-founder of the institute and evangelist for the future of biological investigation.

BioCommerce Week joined Hood at Julia’s Restaurant on Seattle’s Wallingford Ave. for a breakfast of huevos rancheros (sunny-side up), a no-fat latte, and an hour-long discussion of his vision of technology, innovation, and, of course, systems biology.

What technologies will drive your vision of systems biology?

The key for digitalization in the early stages is going to be the development and integration of microfluidics and nanotechnology. It’s all going to come from these platforms, which will be enormous enablers of large-scale systems biology. Those things are three to five years off at the scale and sensitivity that is going to be real exciting. We can do things now with nanotech and microfluidics, but we are taking the first baby steps, like the DNA sequencer was in 1986. It took five years from then to get a robust instrument and another 10 years to get a factory production line.

Where will innovation in this field come from?

The companies will never do the innovation to get the next stage. Companies are really great at the implementation and the commercialization, but they have never exhibited much in the way of innovation. Academics will take it there. A company like ABI will be very good in stepping in once the prototype has been done, and commercializing it and putting it in a platform and doing all of these things, but ABI does not have the people to innovate these challenges in nanotechnology and surface chemistry. In systems biology, the drivers are going to be the people that can get the 0.001 percent of the scientists who can invent the future and make a difference.

Let’s talk about the people at the Institute for Systems Biology. What are you looking for in your next hires?

There are three hires that we are really looking at seriously. One is we want a senior person in proteomics. You know, proteomics is one of the most immature of the “omics” fields, and we have been the center of virtually all of the really profound developments in proteomics but on the technical and the computational side, and we need to reinforce that strength. The second area we are utterly committed to making one or two appointments in is computational approaches to the integration of all of these different types of information into networks and ultimately into mathematical constructions. The computational aspects of how you do this integration are really deep and really profound and very, very challenging. And the third area that we find is absolutely key, is that all of this has to be driven by really superb biology. So we are looking for a really good senior biologist who is committed to a legitimate view of systems biology and is willing to become a real member of the team and is going to use whatever biology they are interested in, to drive both technology and computation.

What are the salary structures for the hires you are looking at?

We pay significantly higher salaries than the typical academics do because you know the institute is young and there is a certain amount of risk and we don’t give tenure. You see, I’ve never believed in tenure, so we have three-year, rolling five-year appointments, so we have faculty salaries that are in the 100 to 200K range with exceptional people being potentially above that, and that’s better than lots of academic institutions.

You have raised some $150 million for the institute. Is that enough to support the vision?

That’s mostly programmatic money. Gretchen [Sorenson, ISB’s senior director, external affairs and development] and I are embarking on a campaign to raise money that is more flexible and we would really like to focus it in an endowment, so you would have an ongoing income stream and focus on some of the fundamental infrastructural things we need to renew, and recruitment of new faculty. But even more important is inventing the future, and the idea there is that a lot of the really innovative things we would like to do, [but] we can’t get funded at NIH, because the study sections are too conservative.

How do you manage this cross-disciplinary team you have?

The key driver is weekly faculty meetings where we discuss very deeply [the] institute’s direction and where our commitment should be and how we are going to do those things. In general we come to a consensus. I wouldn’t say that everyone agrees, but most people really agree and they feel they have forged a part of the commitment and decision that we make.

You do come to some fundamental disagreement and then, if it involves resources, I decide how we are going to do [it]. We have very few situations where there wasn’t a general consensus. It’s team building. Our faculty has the feeling that we are inventing the future on how to do systems biology.

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