Ken Stuart, the Working Class Kid Who Built a Global Health Hotspot at Seattle Biomed

Xconomy Seattle — 

One of Seattle’s leading scientific entrepreneurs grew up in a working-class home in which neither parent went to college. Ken Stuart‘s family didn’t have enough money to send him to one of the many universities in his hometown of Boston.

When he graduated high school, he had no idea what would come next.

“I wasn’t sure I’d even go to college,” Stuart says. “I never applied. I was sick of school.”

After waiting all the way until May of his senior year, Stuart ended up talking his way into Northeastern University at the last minute and finding a co-op job to help pay the bills. Once there, he got hooked on biology. He soon got on the fast track, and could have had a tenured university faculty job, but decided early on that wasn’t enough. By combining a curiosity for some obscure fields of biology, some entrepreneurial spirit, and really good timing, Stuart ended up building a mini-global health empire at the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute.

Now at 70, after 35 years of building up Seattle Biomedical Research Institute from scratch into a research hotspot with 365 employees and a $52 million annual budget, Stuart is handing over day-to-day leadership to a successor, Alan Aderem. Stuart now says he’s looking forward to returning to more of the science that got him so fired up in the first place.

“There are very few people with the dynamic range to grow an organization from nothing to the state where Seattle Biomed is now,” says John King, a former Merck and Rosetta Inpharmatics executive who served on the institute’s board in the ’80s and ’90s. “Ken learned on the job how to be a startup guy, how to bootstrap an institute based on scientific excellence. He grew into doing things like sophisticated fundraising, marketing—all the kind of things big research institutes have to do.”

Stuart’s journey started in an unusual place. He was born in December 1940, and grew up the youngest of four sons in a working class home in Brighton, MA. His father was a house painter, and his mother was a stay-at-home mom. Stuart found himself interested in the stacks of books that his family kept at home, but he says he wasn’t much of a student. Grammar school was “incredibly easy and boring,” he says.

Stuart didn’t find much that interested him in high school science either, except for physics. It was hard to see where that might lead, though, since Stuart never really saw himself as college-bound. It all changed that one day in May of his senior year, when he recalls going to the school in person, and asking to meet with the dean of admissions. After getting an incredulous look from the secretary, who told him the fall class was full, Stuart persisted in seeing the dean. Within about 10 minutes, he had persuaded the dean to let him in, largely because Stuart had gone to a competitive public high school, he says.

This was the late ’50s, years after Watson and Crick had made the pioneering discovery of the structure of DNA, igniting the modern era of molecular biology. Looking back, Stuart says that moment was lost on him. He found biology more from his personal reading, of a number of books at home that his father accumulated. Pretty soon, Stuart found himself spending long hours not just in the libraries at Northeastern, but at Harvard and MIT libraries, which had reciprocity agreements with Stuart’s school just a few miles across the Charles River. Everything from physiology to biochemistry to frog embryo development, he gobbled up.

“I started studying intensively. I liked it,” Stuart says.

Textbooks soon weren’t enough, and Stuart says he really found his passion in the lab as a master’s student at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT and then at the University of Iowa, where he got his Ph.D. Seeing the components of the cell under a microscope, after reading about them for years, made something click in his grad school years. He looked at various protozoans, the DNA of mitochrondia that produce energy in cells. He eventually settled on parasites found in Africa, known as trypanosomes, that cause diseases like sleeping sickness and Chagas disease.

This was all happening for Stuart in the mid-to-late 1960s, long before the term “global health” was coined and the whole field became cool. Stuart’s family, particularly his older brothers who studied engineering, gave him some odd looks. Even peers in academia advised him to look in other directions.

“My engineering brothers thought it was crazy, what is this guy doing?” Stuart says.

By the time he was in graduate school in his mid 20s, Stuart was already married and had three kids. He took a couple postdoctoral fellowships, one in London and another in New York, but moved on quickly in search of more gainful employment. By 1972, he found his first faculty job at the University of South Florida. The weather might have been “paradise,” and the opportunity to help build a new university was enticing. But ultimately, “it didn’t turn out as well as advertised,” Stuart says.

As a junior faculty member, Stuart ended up doing a lot of undergraduate teaching, sometimes in lecture halls with 300 people. He didn’t have as much time as he wanted to focus on research. And even though he had a lab with graduate students, he didn’t like the attitude he saw in the older faculty. “The senior faculty, guys who were about 10 years older than me, I didn’t see any ambition or intent to try to accomplish much,” Stuart says. “They were marking time. It wasn’t for me. I wanted to accomplish more.”

So Stuart started thinking about something different. He had secured a two-year, $35,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to do research at USF. He knew about Seattle’s growing cluster of biomedical research at the University of Washington, and thought about taking his work there. But Stuart, in a hurry to get started, didn’t want to go through the formal faculty recruitment process. He got to talking with Ruth Shearer, a young biologist at the UW. He flew out to Seattle to meet Shearer, and scope out a building near her house in Issaquah that could provide some modest lab space.

It was 1976, about three and half years after Stuart had gotten his first faculty job. Peers tried to talk him out of it. Nobody was starting independent research centers from scratch in those days, especially without any surefire base of funding.

USF didn’t try to dissuade him from leaving. And Stuart says he didn’t look back.

“That was it,” Stuart says. “We looked at it, and decided.” The family was moving to Seattle.

What happened next was the beginning of a true bootstrap operation. Stuart recalls hammering together lab benches by hand, buying a cheap typewriter at a surplus store to pound out federal grant applications, and sneaking in some use of the copy machine at the UW’s biochemistry department. He went to Washington Mutual, waved a $35,000 grant award at a loan officer, and was able to secure another $10,000 loan, which he needed to buy a centrifuge. When he applied for a pair of additional grants—at a time when only the top 7 percent of applications were getting funded—he hit gold on both applications. Since he only expected to get one of the grants, he took the extra money and used it to hire four young postdocs.

Suddenly, the little institute, originally called the Issaquah Group for Health and Environmental Research, was a real operating entity. Stuart says Shearer left after a couple years, when her interest shifted more toward environmental carcinogens. But some of the young people who came in the early days, like Stuart, had a lot of fire in the belly for their research, and confidence that they could keep winning competitive NIH grants, even without being part of a major name-brand academic center. One of the postdocs who arrived in 1982, Peter Myler, remains on the faculty at Seattle Biomed. Another, Steve Reed, went on to found his own research center, the Infectious Disease Research Institute, as well as co-found a couple of local biotech companies—Corixa and Immune Design.

The work environment allowed, and essentially required, everyone there to be extremely focused and committed, Stuart says. It was not the kind of place for someone seeking a lot of job security, since federal research grants can ebb and flow. But King, the former board member, said Stuart found a niche that enabled him to flourish.

“Ken is very entrepreneurial. He enjoyed being his own boss. My sense was that conventional faculty positions, although he was certainly qualified, didn’t interest him,” King says. “He wanted to call his own shots. He’s a very tenacious guy.”

That tenacity, and Stuart’s growing list of peer-reviewed publications, helped attract others with similar drive and determination, Stuart says.

“In the early days, things were pretty seat-of-the-pants,” says Myler, a researcher who joined the institute in 1982. “Ken would help with building the benches, and nitty-gritty day-to-day stuff. It’s a bit different from CEO person you might see these days.”

By the mid-1980s, Stuart and his colleagues were tired of commuting in to seminars at the University of Washington, and they felt isolated in Issaquah. So the decision was made to move into the city. Partly in an effort to keep costs down, Seattle Biomed teamed up with another global health nonprofit, PATH, to share a building along Nickerson Street. The institute dropped Issaquah from its name, and became Seattle Biomedical Research Institute.

The institute continued to develop its reputation for doing top scientific work, as its staff grew to around 70 to 80 people. The researchers kept winning grants from federal sources, but Stuart felt like it needed to do something more to go to another level. Not everyone got along, and not everyone stayed. Stuart had “strong opinions” about how science should be done, Myler says, and shared them. And even though Stuart is more of a big-picture, visionary kind of guy, and not extremely detail-oriented, he sometimes had to resist the urge to micromanage.

“He’s a very strong personality. If you can deal with him person to person and stand up to his strong personality, you can get along well,” Myler says. “If you’re the type of person who’s meek and mild, it can be difficult at times. He and I would sometimes get into heated discussions. But when that was done, it was done.”

Stuart, being focused on his research, realized pretty early that he would need to make connections in the business community. He recalls once reading a newspaper feature story about business movers and shakers in Seattle, and using that as a guide for people to get to know. He invited Bill Gates Sr. to join his board, which the elder Gates politely declined, years before the Gates Foundation made global health its mission.

Still, Stuart continued to seek advice from businesspeople on his board, like King, who could help him carry out a bigger ambition. By the late 90s, Stuart said he and board decided they needed to diversify the sources of financing. Seattle Biomed needed to find a bigger new building if it was going to recruit and retain top scientific talent. “I felt like it wasn’t sustainable. We had to bite the bullet and try to become an institute with more capacity, a more substantive institution,” Stuart says.

That meant Stuart would have to spend less time doing science, and more time out in the community telling the story of global health. Often, he did this with small groups of 20 people at a time over lunch or breakfast. Dean Allen, the CEO of McKinstry and a Seattle Biomed board member, was instrumental in opening a lot of doors in the community, Stuart says.

The community outreach helped, but the really big, well-timed break came in 1999. That’s when Seattle Biomed secured a $5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to do some early research work toward a malaria vaccine. The grant itself wasn’t huge, but it was the beginning of an important relationship. The Gates Foundation, the world’s largest philanthropy, was just beginning to coalesce around global health R&D. Lucky for Seattle Biomed, the foundation happened to be located in the same city, and have the same interests. Today, Seattle Biomed now gets almost half (44 percent) of its budget from foundations, with the Gates Foundation at the top of the list. Most of the rest comes from federal grants and contracts.

While the institute was growing into its current form, the work of administering the institute got bigger and more complicated over time. Things really came to a head when Seattle Biomed struck a deal to move into its first modern lab facility, with room for up to 400 people, in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood.

Stuart, like most entrepreneurs, can be a pretty intense guy, but he is capable of relaxing, Myler says. Stuart says he enjoys skiing, watches Mariners games on his DVR, and is working on writing a family history with his brother. Stuart also admits he likes to unwind by watching what he calls “stupid TV shows,” like ABC’s “Modern Family.” He lives in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, just a short drive away from Seattle Biomed. He usually gets in to the office by 7 am, and leaves around 7 pm on a typical day.

Stuart won’t officially hand over day-to-day operations to Aderem until year’s end, but he says he’s excited about getting more immersed in the science that got him started at Seattle Biomed, when it was just a little operation in Issaquah. “My enthusiasm for science has grown,” he says.

Whatever Stuart accomplishes in the lab from here on out, it surely won’t be the last thing Seattle Biomed does. The institute, with its big team of scientists, sleek facility, and diversified funding sources, is in a position to keep fostering global health R&D long after he’s gone. It’s a rare thing, in that most biomedical research centers of this kind tend to hinge on the work of the lone, driven founder, and/or benefit from a single huge donor.

Stuart, who never lost his working-class Boston accent, doesn’t come across as the most introspective guy in interviews. The kid who didn’t think he was college material has now built a mini-empire for global health research. It’s been 35 years in the making, and it might take 35 more before it will really be judged on the kind of progress it makes against scourges like malaria, TB, HIV, African Sleeping Sickness, and other diseases. It’s a powerful motivator, which Stuart still draws on each day.

“I’m driven to create an environment where science can be done and done really well. Not only science, but important science,” Stuart says. “There’s something within me, maybe it’s the Scottish heritage, but I don’t like waste. If you’re going to spend time and effort and other people’s money, you ought to be doing really good and important things with it.”

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2 responses to “Ken Stuart, the Working Class Kid Who Built a Global Health Hotspot at Seattle Biomed”

  1. Somaia says:

    I like the story of this man.
    He is very persistant
    i want to be one of his students

  2. Jason says:

    Might be a good story, but he is driving his organization into the ground with his cronyism and poor leadership skills