The National Center for Genome Resources has ended a three-year leadership drought with the recent appointment of a president and a chief operating officer. The positions — held by Stephen Kingsmore and Susan Baxter, respectively — fill key vacancies in NCGR’s executive management team and signal a new era of stability and growth for the center, said Bill Beavis, chief scientific officer at NCGR.
Beavis, who joined NCGR in 1998, has seen the center through a number of highs and lows, and helped usher it through a recent rocky period that he described as “survival mode.” Three years ago, the center began ramping up its grant-writing activities — a strategy that began paying off about a year ago. At that time, Beavis told BioInform, “we felt it was time to grow … and we said, ‘Let’s get someone in to take us from survival mode to growth mode — someone who can really drive strategic planning.’”
The Santa Fe, NM-based center hired Baxter, formerly vice president of research and genome analysis at GeneFormatics (now Cengent), as COO in November of 2003; and then brought on Kingsmore, formerly COO at Molecular Staging and vice president of research at CuraGen, as president in February. Miguel Rios, formerly interim CEO, remains chairman of NCGR’s board of directors.
The center’s 35 full-time employees have been reorganized into two core functions: an engineering-based software development group, which Baxter leads; and a scientific group led by Beavis. Geert Wenes, program leader for bioinformatics, and Damian Gessler, program leader for computational systems biology, round out the executive team.
NCGR was founded in 1994 to provide informatics support for the human genome project when it was under the auspices of the Department of Energy. Once the funding for the project shifted to NIH, and the informatics piece migrated to NCBI, NCGR was deprived of its core mission. Then, in 1997, PE Corp. (now Applied Biosystems) acquired NCGR spin-off Molecular Informatics, which brought the center two things, Kingsmore said: “a no-compete, which meant they couldn’t be in human health, and a lot of money. Both of those are pretty bad for a young institution.”
It took several years for NCGR to find its footing as it burned through the endowment set up with proceeds from the sale of Molecular Informatics. With human health and the human genome off its list of research activities, the center turned to agricultural genomics, and began building a number of informatics tools, such as TAIR (the Arabidopsis Information Resource), that have become staples of the plant genomics community.
Last year, the no-compete agreement expired, and NCGR took steps to focus again on human health — specifically in the area of infectious disease, Beavis said. The center’s researchers are now providing informatics support for experimental teams from a number of organizations working in this area, he said, including Los Alamos National Laboratory, the University of New Mexico, the University of Northern Arizona, and the University of Texas at Galveston. In addition, NCGR has also accelerated its research into statistics-based molecular modeling for systems biology, and has been collaborating with the Department of Defense on modeling projects for several years, Kingsmore said.
More importantly, however, the center is seeing an increase in its revenues from grants and contracts. NCGR brought in around $2.6 million in grants in 2003 — nearly twice as much as the $1.5 million it received in 2002 [see chart below for additional financial data]. By comparison, in 1999, NCGR reported only $816,000 in revenues from research grants. Beavis said that several large grants are currently pending that could help the center reach the $5 million revenue mark in 2004. Just last week, the center was awarded a $1.2 million grant from the US Department of Agriculture to support development of the LIS (Legume Information System) database.
NCGR is also in the early stages of collaborations with DeCode Genetics and Genaissance Pharmaceuticals, Kingsmore said, and the center is looking for more partnerships with commercial partners.
Kingsmore said he plans to use his contacts in the commercial sector to help build this aspect of NCGR’s activities, but he has no regrets about leaving industry behind. “Five or ten years ago, the best environment to do cutting-edge research was in the commercial sector … and then with the recession there was a realization of business fundamentals being paramount, and there no longer was that commitment to innovation,” he said. “So I started to look for a position in the not-for-profit sector, and NCGR turned out to be a perfect match. Their approach is not to generate the data, but to analyze, mine, and serve that information up to investigators worldwide, and to me that’s an ideal place to be.”
In addition, he said, “there’s the skiing. … Santa Fe is a fabulous place to live.”