West Wireless Health Institute Marks Its Debut With Swanky Soiree, Hints of Venture Fund

In early 2009, when the nation was in a full-blown recession, San Diego’s tech community was taken aback by the size of a $45 million grant that Midwestern telemarketing billionaires Gary and Mary West made through their family foundation to create the West Wireless Health Institute.

Since then, Gary and Mary West have doubled their initial grant, and last night the independent nonprofit medical research facility opened its doors, displaying three elegantly remodeled floors of labs and offices amid a catered and champagne-toasted affair that seemed intended to impress San Diego’s elite. (Were the beefy guys with the earpieces plainclothes security guards?) The institute’s open house also displayed the founders’ grand ambitions and a manifest determination to establish the West Institute as a pedigreed technology leader.

As CEO Don Casey explained, Gary and Mary West made the additional $25 million donation announced last night (which boosted their total donation to $90 million) because they perceived an opportunity “to go out and hire world-class engineering talent.” The institute, which now counts 12 engineers among its 42 employees, expects to employ between 60 and 80 engineers, Casey said.

In outlining the institute’s mission to “innovate, validate, advocate, invest, and commercialize” advanced wireless health technologies, Casey said the institute also sees “a real challenge on the investment front.” As a result, Casey said there is an “opportunity at the West Wireless Health Institute to set up a venture fund that would serve as a beacon” for the institute’s core mission of using wireless technologies to drive down health costs.

In addition to announcing an alliance with Mexico’s Carlos Slim Health Institute—founded three years ago by the richest person in the world—telecommunications giant TelCel owner Carlos Slim Helú—the institute today will host Aneesh Chopra, an assistant to President Obama who has been named as the first U.S. chief technology officer. Next week, the institute’s chief medical and science officer, Joseph Smith, will testify about applying mobile health technologies to veterans’ healthcare before a U.S. House subcommittee. Smith also is scheduled to meet with FDA officials next week to discuss how to foster innovation in wireless health.

At a time when the U.S. is spending almost 20 percent of its GDP on healthcare—and is expected to spend $4 trillion on healthcare by 2017—“now is the time to unleash the spirit of American innovation to solve the problems of healthcare,” Gary West told the audience last night.

With more than 300 wireless companies and 600 life sciences companies in the San Diego area, West said, “This community has the capacity to do something special. But I’m not sure that it recognizes that. As medicine, engineering, and science converge, San Diego has a magic, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to become the global center for healthcare innovation.” But this area needs to claim that role for itself, West said. San Diego needs to say that it is the global center for healthcare innovation, and to keep saying it. “And pretty soon, if it’s said enough, it just becomes true.”

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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