In 2001, Ken Trevett was the first non-scientist to be named chief executive of what is now known as the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute. LA BioMed, affiliated with the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine, is one of the largest independent not-for-profit biomedical research institutes in the country. The Torrance facility is housed in a collection of converted World War II hospital buildings, along with a few more contemporary facilities, at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center campus. The 60-year-old Massachusetts native had an unlikely beginning as an administrator. The Colgate University English graduate made three unsuccessful attempts for state office in his early 20s before turning his attention to public service in the non-profit sector. He held three key administrative posts at Boston-area academic research institutions before being enticed to relocate to Los Angeles. Here, he has focused on raising the public profile of LA BioMed and promoting the role that technology transfer can play in getting innovations to the public sooner; four startups have launched under his tenure. The institute, which employs 1,460 people, also has added 15 faculty members, and is in the midst of a renovation and expansion of its physical plant.

Question: When you decided to major in English in the late 1960s, did you have any particular career goal in mind?

Answer: To be quite honest I wasn't quite sure at the time. Colgate University had a very strong English program, and I switched from history because of that after I started. Along the way, I also became very interested in public policy issues. What really set me on my current career path was running to represent my hometown (Winchester, Mass.) in the state House of Representatives three times in the early '70s. I was only 22 years old during my first campaign in 1970, and was running against a 26-year incumbent.

Q: Did you really think you could win?

A: I absolutely thought I could win, and in 1972 I almost did. I lost by only 21 votes. But after losing the third time I decided to move on.

Q.: What did you learn on the campaign trail?

A: I really learned how to talk to people. It was a terrific experience in learning how to relate to all kinds of people as I would go door-to-door campaigning. I also learned about organizing people and building consensus around certain issues. And of course, I learned how to be graceful in defeat.

Q: Have you ever thought about how your life would have changed had you won?

A: It would have been totally different. But in a roundabout way it set me on my career path. I very much wanted to do something that would have a positive social impact. I enrolled at the four-year evening program at Suffolk University Law School while I worked various jobs, including at a home for troubled delinquents, and the Service Employees International Union. I even worked for the Massachusetts secretary of state for a time.

Q: What was your first job out of law school?

A: Assistant dean for administration at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine. It was a neat job, because there hadn't been a veterinary school in New England for around 25 years. We all worked extraordinary hours to get that program off the ground, but it was an inspiring and motivating experience. I was there for three years until the dean, Albert Jonas, whom I considered a mentor, went on to Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, and I joined him as house counsel. Jackson is a mammalian genetics research institute that supplies research animals, so it's kind of fun today whenever I sign a check to pay for mice from Jackson.

Q: What triggered your interest in technology transfer?

A: My next job at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, where I was their first general counsel. I remember mediating a dispute involving Johnson & Johnson and a Dana-Farber licensee concerning a faculty consulting contract. That really sensitized me to the importance of keeping an eye on the most modest kind of arrangement. But my work in tech transfer really picked up when I moved on to the Schepens Eye Research Institute in Boston. It was an opportunity to be a chief operating officer, but I also performed a lot of legal work.

Q: What lead you to take a job clear across the country at LA BioMed?

A: It was a chance to lead an organization for the first time. I was familiar with the institute because of my work with the Association of Independent Research Institutes, where I had been president.

Q: When you came for the interview, how did you react when you saw that the institute was still largely housed in a hodgepodge of World War II military hospital buildings?

A: I was surprised at first, but got used to it. We offer visitors a very detailed map on how to find their way around here. Over time we're working to consolidate our activities in one part of the campus so the county can use the other land for their purposes.

Q: So some of the construction taking place on campus belongs to the institute?

A: We are building a new research building, named after two former board chairwomen, which is going to enable us to do something very innovative for us. We want to have more efficient space, to have people closer together so they can collaborate better, interact and synergize. The Hanley-Hardison Research Center is going to house 14 investigators, representing at least six different departments here. We hope that will result in some very interesting cross-collaborations.

Q: You also worked to change the institute's name soon after you got here. Why?

A: When I arrived at the institution in 2001 it was called Harbor-UCLA Research and Education Institute. I thought that was pretty bland, and fortunately many people agreed with me. It took until 2004, but we finally agreed on calling us the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute, which we nicknamed LA BioMed. The business community loved it because it raises the visibility of Los Angeles as being a biomedical center.

Q: At least four of the institute's spinoff startup have launched under your watch. Did you make a special effort to encourage entrepreneurial endeavors?

A: This institute already has a terrific history of taking scientific discoveries and turning them into practical applications. A faculty member here invented the modern cholesterol test. Another group developed the thyroid deficiency test, which is administered to infants throughout the industrial world. The paramedic model of emergency care was developed here. The spirit of innovation is something that really energizes me and I think really energizes the campus.

Q: What role do the spinoffs play?

A: It's an important way for discoveries to get to the public. It also contributes to our economic impact to the community. We've licensed our technology to startup companies to develop treatments from everything from sickle-cell anemia to aesthetic products. That last company, Kythera Biopharmaceuticals, has a wonderful leadership team that came from Amgen.

Q: What is the most memorable deal you've done here?

A: In 2003 we did a $25 million licensing deal for an enzyme replacement therapy called Aldurazyme, of which we are receiving $18 million up front. It was a good deal, but maybe the most memorable thing about it was that I finalized the term sheet on the night of my youngest daughter's wedding rehearsal dinner back in Maine.

Q: Did your wife take a dim view of you working that night?

A: Yes, she finally had to say, "Ken, it's time to put down the phone, and get into your suit."

Q: Your children are from your wife's previous marriage, but it sounds like you became very close to them over the 30 years you've been married.

A: Absolutely. I helped raise them. Their biological dad passed away this year and we've all agreed that I'm finally going to formally adopt them. It's very moving for me, though we've all chuckled about how unusual the ceremony is going to be.

Q: Los Angeles continues to play second fiddle to other biotech centers. Is that perception warranted these days?

A: It's a matter of promoting our area in the way that San Diego, Boston-Cambridge and San Francisco promote their industries. We have at least 400 biomedical, bioinstrumentation or pharmaceutical companies in the county, and 25 very strong research institutions that receive about $1 billion in (National Institutes of Health) funding. Various institutions and the county are working to burnish the image here, but do I think we have a ways to go.

Q: Does the lack of a large regional biotech park hurt that effort to promote the local industry?

A: It does. Having a business park or parks creates efficiencies and creates visibility. I welcome the initiative USC and the county are making with their biotech park, but that's a beginning, not an end. The Los Angeles Area Economic Development Corp. and the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce are very attuned to this issue and want to promote the industry. And they need to. At least once a month I get a mailing from the state of Florida suggesting that the institute relocate there. Not that we've considering it, but Florida is really on the ball in promoting their state.

Q: Didn't LA BioMed have the opportunity to anchor its own biotech park several years ago?

A: The Navy had some surplus land down near San Pedro and Rancho Palos Verdes that it offered to us and several other non-profits. But I felt that from a programmatic standpoint that was not a good solution for us. We get such positive value from being next to the medical center. Most of our investigators have clinical appointments there.

Q: I notice you have a Harvard Book Award for Community Service and Contributions to Business and Law in your office. What is that about?

A: One thing I wasn't prepared for when I got here was the county health care funding crisis in 2002. I was among many people who took a very active role to promote what became Proposition B, the property tax that supports the health care system. I have framed on my wall a front-page story from the Daily Breeze, with the headline "Trauma Center Saved." I suppose because I had worked for two Harvard Medical School affiliates, and there is a huge Harvard alumni association here, that might have contributed to my getting the award.

Q: You have a golf trophy in your office. How often do you golf and what do you find satisfying about it?

A: That came from being on the winning team at a charity event, but I'm really not all that good. I get to golf every two or three weeks, and my wife and I occasionally go on golfing vacations. Golf is a wonderful escape. If you're going to be at all reasonably good at the game, you've got to get absorbed in it, really concentrate. What I also like is that you generally get to do it in very attractive locales, so that's fun.

Q: Any other hobbies?

A: I read, a lot. I usually have three or four books going at the same time, usually history or politics, but I also like Raymond Chandler-type mysteries. I just finished "Perfect Summer," which is about class warfare and economic disparities in England in 1911, just before World War I upended everything. Right now I'm working on a history of the Panama Canal. And I've just purchased the new translation of "The Three Musketeers."

Q: What feeds your soul?

A: When I can play a role in turning a situation or an organization around for the better. That's tremendously exciting to me.

Q: Have you done that at LA BioMed?

A: I'd like to think so.

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