By Meredith W. Salisbury
Scientists in the systems biology community are no strangers to teamwork. The once-novel concept of collaborative research has become a ho-hum topic in a field where international, multi-institutional scientific projects are the norm. But at the California Institute for Quantitative Biomedical Research, institute leaders have by necessity found a way to make collaborative science new again — and that happens with the help of their friends in industry.
QB3, as it’s known, is a joint venture teaming the resources of three schools in the University of California system: Berkeley, San Francisco, and Santa Cruz. The program, founded in 2000, was born of a statewide competition for large-scale ideas that would build up the innovation, competitiveness, and economic growth of California, according to QB3 Executive Director Regis Kelly. Chosen as the only bio-based winner, QB3 claimed its $100 million prize — but to get ongoing funding from the state, the institute has to show that it’s contributing to the California economy. “When I’m evaluated each year,” says Kelly, the powers that be consider “what have we done for existing biotech businesses in the state” as well as what new private-sector ventures have launched because of, or with the help of, QB3. What that means for the 150-plus faculty members who comprise the program is that industrial partnerships and entrepreneurship are a much more prominent part of daily life than they are at comparable academic institutions.
For one thing, a kumbaya moment with Genentech led QB3 to a breakthrough that could reshape how industrial research groups partner with academic institutions. Art Levinson, who did a postdoc at UCSF before climbing the ranks and becoming CEO of Genentech, told the academic folks that his main complaint about public-sector/private-sector partnerships was that they took too long to start up because of the complicated, months-long legal proceedings that accompany any potential deal. If his Genentech team had a project that it could use QB3’s help with, the project would be long over by the time the papers were in place to approve the collaboration. To get around this, Kelly and his legal team spent months ironing out a “standard boilerplate document” that allows each partner simply to fill in the blanks and get to the actual teamwork part within a week. Other companies, Kelly says, are already asking if they can plug into the same kind of deal to facilitate cooperative research with the QB3 crowd.
QB3 has also worked hard to establish ties with non-research companies. For one thing, the sheer mass of top-notch researchers has made the institute an ideal beta-testing site for technology vendors. The institute recently opened a new imaging center funded by Nikon, which has promised to outfit the center with new, state-of-the-art microscopes; train QB3 scientists to use them; and replace them as new versions of the equipment are released. (Talk about buyer’s clout.) Nikon isn’t the only one. QB3 has deals to work with liquid handling technology and new capillary electrophoresis tools, among others, and has started turning away vendors “because we’re running out of space,” Kelly says.
And on an internal bent, there’s the QB3 Garage, an idea that took advantage of some leftover space in the institute’s new Mission Bay building. The target is what Kelly calls “reluctant entrepreneurs” — faculty who might have research or technology they’re considering commercializing but who don’t want to leave their labs behind to pursue a startup. They can rent out a few hundred square feet of space in the QB3 Garage and use it almost as a pre-incubator to help them figure out if the commercial ramifications of their project make sense. “We had no idea whether there would be a demand for this space,” Kelly says, noting that the Garage now has six tenants.
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That’s not to say everyone at QB3 wears a three-piece suit and organizes networking cocktail parties. Scientific research is the backbone of the institute, and with names like David Haussler, Joe DeRisi, and Jay Keasling on board, it would be tough to sell this as anything other than a science-driven enterprise. The 150 faculty members who initially formed QB3 had a wide variety of research interests, and that still characterizes the institute today. Labs focus on proteomics, microarrays, synthetic biology, structural biology, bioinformatics, genomics, metabolomics, and much more. Part of Kelly’s job has been what he calls “knowledge brokering” — talking to virtually every scientist about his or her research, and then trying to come up with potential collaborations between scientists who may not even be on each other’s radar. Kelly says this idea to find “meaningful connections between people” answered the major question people had about QB3 at its outset: “How do we add value to 150 research scientists who are already well funded and very successful?”
David Haussler at Santa Cruz, for instance, is well known for his work using statistical analysis of genomic data to understand how genomes evolved. “Up in the [UCSF] medical school, they’re much more interested in how genomes predict sickness,” Kelly says. Bringing Haussler together with medical researchers could lead to clinic-ready algorithms that would help tackle illness.
QB3 must be doing something right: its mantra has been attractive enough to lure talent from other institutions. Andrej Sali, a computational biologist who specializes in proteins, came from Rockefeller University in 2003 because “the scientific vision of QB3 [was] really something that I could subscribe to in a nanosecond,” he says. He especially likes the mix of experimental and computational scientists, and he is looking forward to taking his studies of protein structure, function, and sequence and linking that to a more clinical mindset. Almost every member of Sali’s group has at least one active research collaboration, he says, noting in particular that “the opportunities are amazing in the Bay area.”
Kelly’s vision for QB3 is ambitious — perhaps impossibly so. “My [goal] actually is that QB3 be an institution with the renown of MIT,” he says. “We’re in here for the long run.” The dream may be big, but wrangling a community of 150 leading biomedical scientists certainly is a good place to start.
Name: California Institute for Quantitative Biomedical Research, or QB3
Host: Three University of California schools: Berkeley, San Francisco, and Santa Cruz
Director: Regis Kelly, former executive vice chancellor of UCSF
Staff: More than 150 faculty affiliates from the three universities
Funding stats: QB3 kicked off with a one-time $100 million award from the state of California; since then, it has received around $1 million or $2 million annually from the state and brings in philanthropic financing as well
Key research areas: Microarrays and disease; proteomics; structural biology; bioinformatics; synthetic biology; genomics; and metabolomics, to name just a handful
Core facilities: Synchrotron beamline; NMR facilities; X-ray crystallography; membrane protein expression; small molecule discovery and screening; microarrays; proteomics; genomics; biocomputing/informatics; mass spectrometry; advanced imaging; and biomolecular nanotechnology