Putting Electrons Behind Getting Things Built: Seattle Science Foundation Aims to Connect Scientists, Start Companies

Xconomy Seattle — 

Bob Franza has a way with words. I stopped by to visit the visionary biologist in his office at the Seattle Science Foundation yesterday, hoping to get a better sense of what the new nonprofit organization is all about. He didn’t give me the usual public-relations boilerplate.

He mentioned social networking for scientists as a focus of the foundation a couple times, and I asked him what that meant. “We want to ignite the kind of relationships that give people the fortitude to go do something,” he replied.

“Does that mean starting companies?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Franza, the foundation’s executive scientific director. “I like it when people put most of their electrons behind getting something built and sold.” (I think he meant their biological electrons instead of computer skills, but I’m not really sure.)

You get the idea. This is a guy who thinks big and has a colorful command of the English language. Franza was the founder and director of the University of Washington’s Cell Systems Initiative from 2000 to 2006, a cross-disciplinary research center that aimed to fill some of the void with startups and public education after Leroy Hood left the university to form the Institute for Systems Biology.

The new science foundation is on the sixth floor of the James Tower, a $65 million project which renovated the original Providence Hospital at 550 17th Avenue in Seattle. The foundation has some big names on its board. Besides Franza, it includes real estate developer Dave Sabey, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center President Lee Hartwell, UW president Mark Emmert, Children’s Hospital president Thomas Hansen, and Swedish Medical Center CEO Rodney Hochman.

The foundation’s mission, as written on its IRS tax return for 2006, “is to improve healthcare and to advance medical knowledge by encouraging collaboration among the world’s most creative physicians, engineers and educators.”

Franza started our meeting by saying he mostly wanted to catch up since it had been a couple years since we had talked, and he didn’t have enough time to give an in-depth rundown about the foundation. Still, I gathered that it aims to use broadband Internet connections that can, say, let a bunch of doctors around the world watch a state-of-the-art brain surgery technique in action. Before I left, however, he did offer a couple of names of cool technologies emerging in his building that are worth further scrutiny.

—One is Accium Biosciences, a company that says it operates the only commercially-available linear accelerator device for mass spectrometry. “They’re counting carbon atoms,” Franza says. It can be used to precisely measure the amount of drug that gets into a biological sample. Glenn Kawasaki, the first scientist at Seattle-based ZymoGenetics (NASDAQ: ZGEN) is the CEO.

—The other technology is at the Seattle CyberKnife Center, part of Swedish Medical Center. It also uses linear accelerator technology, in this case to precisely guide radiation therapy against cancer. The technology is supposed be so precise that it can treat previously inoperable tumors, according to the Swedish web site. “It’s an extraordinary piece of technology,” Franza says.