In the one year since it was founded, the Cell Systems Initiative at the University of Washington School of Medicine has forged a number of corporate alliances, raised several million dollars in financing, and launched six research projects all of which are intended for commercial development.
Most recently, CSI of Seattle, which is designed to serve as an incubator for technologies designed to analyze the properties of cells and cell dynamics, announced the appointment of former Oracle executive Joseph Duncan as chief of operations and information technology.
As chief of operations, Duncan’s main task will be to help nurture ideas brought to CSI with the intention of launching viable new companies.
"CSI is an ideal incubator to bring university and industry people together," said Duncan. "We are looking for projects that are shooting for real results."
Currently, CSI is sponsoring researchers working on half a dozen projects, including an effort to develop computer animation to help educate students about aspects of dynamic cell behavior and an effort to develop more high resolution imaging of live cells. Some researchers are also working to create computer-based modeling and mining tools.
Isis Pharmaceuticals and Immunex last year invested in CSI and signed on to collaborate with its researchers.
In order to protect CSI’s intellectual integrity, the University of Washington maintains ownership of all the intellectual property created by the initiative and retains the right to license the property back to the collaborators.
"There is no issue of joint ownership and everything we do is published," Duncan said.
CSI currently has 12 full-time employees plus more than 20 scientific collaborators. Duncan said that CSI is also trying to build up an endowment, which would make it possible to host post-doctoral students and other fellows.
For his part, Duncan, who served as a senior vice president in Oracle’s products division from 1995 to 1997, reporting directly to CEO Larry Ellison, said he was excited about the opportunity to work in a setting that would allow him to scratch where it itches.
"If you are really interested in trying technical innovations, it’s hard to get investments from investors," said Duncan, adding that companies are generally too focused on pushing new products out the door to support far-out ideas researchers may find interesting.
Duncan, who is currently brushing up on biology by taking adult education courses, said he was personally interested in information modeling and noted that he is working to develop better, simpler visualization tools to help model cells’ information systems.
"People studying biology today really don’t have the tools they need to effectively model what they experience as they do their tests," Duncan said. "They don’t have the tools they need to seamlessly see the interrelationships between all their data as well as data from other researchers."