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Venter Takes Control of TIGR as Part of Venter Institute/TIGR Integration; Fraser Still President

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) — Craig Venter has taken control of the Institute for Genomic Research after TIGR, the J. Craig Venter Institute, and the J. Craig Venter Science Foundation “consolidated” earlier this month, GenomeWeb New has learned.
 
As part of the reorganization, aimed principally at boosting the ability to raise cash and hire top researchers, TIGR and Venter’s JCVI and JCVSF divisions will be integrated into a single institution, called the J. Craig Venter Institute, according to a memo sent on Sept. 18 to TIGR and Venter Institute staffers and obtained by GenomeWeb News today.
 
Venter will be president and chief executive officer of the combined institute. Claire Fraser-Liggett will stay on as president of TIGR and Robert Strausberg, group leader of human genome medicine at the Venter Institute, will become president of the Center for the Advancement of Genomics, which was renamed from JCVI, according to the memo. TIGR and TCAG will be divisions of the Venter Institute.
 
Eric Eisenstadt and Marvin Frazier will remain vice presidents for research of TIGR and TCAG, respectively, while Yu-Hui Rogers will continue to direct the Joint Technology Center with support from a senior management team.
 
The integration was approved Oct. 1, according to a Venter Institute spokesperson. She added that the combined institute expects not only to have the mass to generate additional funding but it will also become more “streamline” in the way its researchers interact.
 
“When you consolidate organizations, rather than having parallel universes everywhere you’re able to consolidate and direct your money elsewhere to better the science,” the spokesperson said. “The idea is to … free up the money to pursue” scientific research. She declined to elaborate. 
 
Asked if the consolidation will result in redundancies and lay-offs, the spokesperson said “we’re looking to see if there are any.”
 
“We’re now one seamless organization that can freely work together” without the requisite red tape, she added.
 
According to tax records filed with the Internal Revenue Service and obtained by GenomeWeb News, TIGR generated more than $70.4 million in revenue in fiscal 2004, the most recent period for which data are available. Of this, $64 million came from government grants and $6.4 million came from “direct public support.”
 
By comparison, the Venter Institute generated $12.1 million in total revenue that year, $1.9 million from government grants and $10.2 million from “direct public support.”
 
A TIGR official did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment.
 
According to the memo, last summer Fraser-Liggett, Eisenstadt, Strausberg, and Frazier talked about “how we can best position ourselves for even greater scientific achievements in the future, increase our competitiveness with regard to available funding opportunities, and enhance our ability to recruit and retain the top scientific talent.”
 
The new facility also “provides needed critical mass for the development of new technology platforms that will enhance our scientific capabilities in diverse areas of interest,” while its board “is committed to dedicating substantial funds for recruiting new scientists, expanding existing programs, and building new ones.”
 
The managers said they “came to the conclusion that we could advance the ongoing synergistic and complementary research programs of our institutes by aligning ourselves more closely to capitalize on existing infrastructure and personnel.”
 
The memo said that a senior management team will direct and oversee research and operations of these labs. These managers will include the division presidents, the vice presidents for research, as well as the legal and financial leadership of the organizations.
 
“The combination of the two institutes into one unified organization will create an even greater force in the global scientific community and increased opportunities” for TIGR and Venter Institute staffers, the memo said.
 
The memo said: “It is important to note that employees will not experience any change in their daily work environments or reporting relationships. We expect that this change will result in more strategic and successful approaches to planning and developing the institutes’ grant portfolios to reflect emerging scientific opportunities and better position TIGR and TCAG to pursue research funding.
 
“Combining senior management from both divisions into a unified team will help our efforts to grow and expand our scientific programs,” the memo states. “These enhanced scientific opportunities have been, and will continue to be, the focus of senior management as we build from a greatly successful history to even greater success in the future. … “
 
Staff Concerns
 
But to some the consolidation, which comes two years after Venter originally tried and failed to merge TIGR and his institutes, represents “a consolidation of power by Craig Venter,” according to a person familiar with the events who asked to remain anonymous because it might jeopardize his relationship with the Institutes.
 
This person said that distant early concerns have begun to surface from TIGR researchers who fear that becoming part of the Venter Institute might cause them forfeit some of their academic freedoms.
 
He said TIGR faculty “are told, ‘You’re supposed to establish yourself as a scientist, get your own funding, create research programs that are exciting,’ just like faculty at universities do.” By comparison, he said, the Venter Institute is a “very top-down place where everybody is told what to do, and they’re all told very clearly, ‘You work for Craig.’
 
“A serious question is ‘if scientists that remain at TIGR don’t like working at the Venter Institute, will they stay?” this person said. “And if they don’t won’t that hurt the ability to raise funds?”
 
According to the Venter Institute spokesperson, the integration has been faced with “an overwhelmingly positive response” from many researchers and “high-level” officials.
 
“I think as with anything that will be a change in people’s lives, there’s bound to be some people who might feel anxiety about change, and that’s a natural part of any organizational change,” she said.
 
She added that ”there are some unique cultural aspects to both organizations, and I think that is going to part of the strengths of the combined organization.”
 
The spokesperson said that the Venter Institute “is not a dictatorship and they [don't] have to take their direction only from Craig. The majority of folks that work at TCAG have been hired for their independence and for their willingness to take risks … and do cutting-edge kinds of research.”
 
Copy Repeats
 
The integration comes two years after Venter consolidated what at the time were four independent non-profit organizations into the J. Craig Venter Institute. Venter, speaking at the sidelines of TIGR’s Genome Sequencing and Analysis Conference in 2004, said that the decision grew out of a need to streamline operational costs.
 
The four organizations each had separate boards, administrative operations, and other activities that will now be combined under the single institute.
 
"We did this so we could save some money and to make it easier to manage," Venter said at the time.
 
The resulting group, the J. Craig Venter Institute, absorbed the J. Craig Venter Science Foundation, the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives, the Center for the Advancement of Genomics, and the foundation's Joint Technology Center.
 
At the time, Venter said that the four groups together currently manage a grant portfolio of more than $100 million. The new institute will employ approximately 500 people, Venter said. He had said that no layoffs are expected.
 
Around one month after Venter made that disclosure he said TIGR has handed over the reigns to GSAC to the J. Craig Venter Institute.

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