While it sounds simple enough to get scientists to collaborate, it requires years of planning to get it working.
That was certainly the case with Biohub, which represents an experiment of sorts to find out whether the Bay Area’s three biggest academic powerhouses — UC Berkeley, Stanford and UC San Francisco — could make discoveries together.
“Mark and Priscilla had this vision where they wanted the three big Bay Area universities to come together,” said UC San Francisco’s DeRisi, who co-leads the organization with Stanford’s Quake. “That meant years of lawyers thinking through every detail, down to who waters and pays for the office cactus.”
DeRisi says the collaboration is working well, primarily because the funders realized that these questions — ranging from the big ones, like intellectual property rights, to the mundane, like watering the cactus — needed to be ironed out first.
The organization also borrowed some of its core mandates about how to find and fund talent from its backers.
It chooses scientists to fund by honing in on “the person, not the project,” says DeRisi. That’s very similar to how Silicon Valley venture capitalists choose companies to back.
The application process was designed to be super simple, with questions like: “tell me the most impactful thing you’ve done for science” and “share your vision for the future.” DeRisi said he looked for “brilliant people,” and not a step-by-step execution plan, which might not allow for the “magic of basic science.”
The Biohub is also staffing up with computational scientists and data scientists, which are notoriously challenging to hire in Silicon Valley. It can’t compete with companies like Apple and Facebook, but many of the technologists it hires are interested in “doing something awesome for science.” Some of them already made their money in tech, and like many others in Silicon Valley, are looking to invest in their brilliant minds into serving humanity rather than creating yet another app designed to get people to click on ads.
And that’s fundamentally what CZI, and the efforts it funds, is all about: Giving academics the funds and resources to work on projects that will have an impact, and giving technologists a way to create a lasting legacy.
“What we’re doing here is trying to make multiple big shots on goal, rather than making a single bet on a person or a disease,” said Malandro from the CZI science team.