Stewart Parker Joins IDRI as New CEO, Bringing Biotech Sensibility to Global Health Effort

[Updated: 2:15 pm] H. Stewart Parker did some soul-searching after her dreams fizzled out at Seattle-based Targeted Genetics, but now the well-known biotech executive has found herself a big new challenge at the Infectious Disease Research Institute.

Parker, 55, the founder and longtime CEO of Targeted Genetics, has agreed to sign on as the CEO of IDRI, the nonprofit global health research center on Seattle’s First Hill. She starts on March 1.

IDRI is pretty much invisible in its hometown, but it is well-known in global health circles as a bustling center for R&D. The nonprofit, founded by immunologist Steve Reed in 1993, now has 94 employees, and an annual budget of about $25 million—half of which comes from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, according to president Curt Malloy. The institute has seen about five-fold growth in the past six years, adding capabilities for vaccine research and development, low-cost diagnostics, and early-stage drug discovery—particularly a tuberculosis treatment program supported by Eli Lilly.

Reed will remain the head of R&D at IDRI, while he continues in his other work as CEO of Seattle-based Immune Design, a vaccine spinoff from IDRI and Caltech that has raised more than $50 million in venture capital. By adding Parker, IDRI is getting its first full-time CEO in the two years that have passed since interim CEO Steve Davis stepped down. Parker, with her experience at Targeted Genetics, knows all about the perils of taking promising science through the clinical development process, and all the money and collaborations it takes to support that enterprise.

“We really pride ourselves on how well we work with the for-profit sector, and she will bring a lot of experience in that area,” Malloy says. “She has product development focus, and operational expertise.” When I asked if Parker will help IDRI raise its public profile, and help improve community fundraising, Malloy didn’t answer directly, but it sounded like a yes. “We’ve kept our heads down too long, we really are a story that hasn’t been told,” Malloy says.

[Updated comment from Parker] “IDRI is the best kept secret in town,” Parker says. “This felt like a natural fit for me. I can’t wait.”

The fit was good, Parker says, because IDRI has an entrepreneurial spirit and an understanding of how things work in industry, which is rare in a nonprofit. Reed, who she has known for years since he was a co-founder of Seattle-based Corixa, personally called her to talk about the position almost a year ago, Parker says. She says she envisions working as a “co-captain” in which Reed continues to drive the R&D effort, while she focuses on key business functions like business development, strategy, fundraising, and “creating the opportunity for our scientists to excel,” she says. She adds: “Our skills are complementary.”

Since she left Targeted Genetics in November 2008, Parker took some time off to think about her next move, as I discussed in this December 2009 feature. She eventually took a part-time role with the Washington Biotechnology & Biomedical Association as a mentor for budding biotech entrepreneurs. It was a role she had unusual qualifications for, as one of the first employees at Immunex in 1981, and as the head of Targeted Genetics from the time it spun off from Immunex in 1992. Parker says she plans to step down from the WBBA role after a transition period.

Like any job, this will involve a learning curve, but it has a new wrinkle for Parker. Her past two jobs were basically with companies that were just getting started, where the culture was being created. IDRI is different in that it has an established culture which Parker will learn. This will be a little like some of her past experience as a board member, in which she has had to get up to speed on established organizations.

“I’m a good listener, I believe in teamwork, I think it will be OK,” she says.

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