Since becoming president of Caltech, David Baltimore has taken steps to see that academic breakthroughs in biology and other disciplines can be utilized by private-sector interests
Since taking the helm at Caltech three years ago, Nobel Prize-winner David Baltimore has been working hard to increase the emphasis on biological sciences while maintaining the Pasadena school’s traditional focus on physics.
In addition, he’s been instrumental in invigorating the Pasadena school’s technology transfer program, which helps scientists find commercial applications for their research by setting up spin-off companies.
Both of those initiatives could be key ingredients in an effort by private enterprise to launch a world-class biotech corridor in Pasadena.
Before coming to Caltech, Baltimore was a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a founding director of MIT’s Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. From 1990 to 1997, he was president of Rockefeller University.
Baltimore’s biological research has focused on the molecular study of animal viruses and has been influential in the understanding of cancer and AIDS. In 1975, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work in virology.
Question: You are often cited for changing the emphasis at Caltech from physics toward biological sciences. Is that accurate?
Answer: It is a misunderstanding. First of all, biology at Caltech has been very strong since 1928, when (Thomas Hunt) Morgan, who was America’s greatest biologist, the man who put genes on chromosomes, came here from Columbia University. He set up a very genetically oriented biology department, which has been one of the great biology departments of the world since the late ’20s. Although for the outside world physics has always been more visible because we’ve had these wonderful people, like (Richard) Feynman and (Murray) Gell-Mann, who are sort of icons of the world, Caltech has been just as important in biology as in any other field.
Q: Has the fact that you are the first biologist heading Caltech created the impression that there has been a shift in emphasis?
A: The fact that no other biologist or chemist has been president has brought a spotlight to biology at Caltech (with my appointment). But when I was offered the job, they told me they had already started a biological sciences initiative. They’ve had committees working for years and had decided on the direction of this initiative, and they wanted me to lead that. One of the things that attracted me to coming here was the sense that there was a commitment to the future of biology.
Q: Billionaire Eli Broad has donated $18 million toward construction of a biological sciences center. How does that factor into Caltech’s commitment to biology?
A: The official groundbreaking is in September, and the idea behind it is to construct a building that embodies the notion of what we call the biological sciences initiative. This is an attempt to reach out in many different directions from biology, bringing the questions of biology to engineers, to mathematicians, to computer scientists, to applied physicists, to everybody. The building embodies this. So, for instance, we’ll bring together our structural biology and our chemistry people in that building. People in that building won’t all be biologists and won’t even all be in the biology division, but they’ll have biology labs.
Q: Is there any overlap between the initiative at Caltech and the biomedical research institutes that Alfred Mann is funding at USC and eventually at UCLA?
A: Mann’s thing is much more medical engineering, and what we do here is more basic biology. I believe that what Alfred Mann is trying to do is more the actual production of devices. We are not likely to produce devices here there are no commercial connections. If things spin off, and we hope that they do, we will commercialize these independently from Caltech.
Q: People often mention you as a key figure behind the proactive approach toward technology transfer at Caltech in recent years. What has your role been?
A: Again, I’m getting too much credit here. Caltech started an active technology transfer office in 1995, two years before I came. But I did intensify the focus on it. One of the things that I saw when I came here and that Caltech was famous for was a sort of insularity. Everything was focused inward on this campus. And although Caltech serves the community very well in terms of lectures and events, the idea of really being a catalyst for the economic development of Pasadena was not terribly strong. I said, we have this technology transfer operation and we have more opportunity there than we’ve ever seen before, so we should try to make that serve the interests of Pasadena by developing a strong perimeter of high-tech and biotech industries. That also serves Caltech very well by providing consulting opportunities for the faculty, by providing job opportunities for the post-docs and the graduates, by providing employment opportunities for spouses of faculty.
Q: At this point there is no biotech cluster in L.A., even though one has been in the making in Pasadena. How important is it for this region to have an identifiable biotech hub?
A: There is a tremendous amount of economic activity around biotech that is very good for the area. But you need density to generate seasoned managers and CEOs to lead these companies, which is a very difficult job. You need people who understand the science, the market, and how decisions you make today impact the company in the future. There aren’t many such people, and they need practical experience, which you only can get by working in those companies. Graduate school is going to help by providing some of the fundamentals in terms of book-learning and laboratory experience, but you’ve got to be out there in the real world to see how it functions. That’s actually a problem. If you ask some people, they find it easier to find good scientists than to find good managers.
Q: As academic scientists and researchers become more entrepreneurial, is it harder to compete with private enterprise for the best minds?
A: In biology and chemistry it hasn’t been. The centers of innovation are still on academic campuses, and people who are really focused on innovation and taking on new challenges are typically not happy working in industry. They may get involved in starting a company, but they will stay on campus because they know that’s where they get the intellectual richness in their lives. I don’t think that is completely true in computer science, where there are a lot of challenges in the entertainment industry and in the Internet industry. There are enormous amounts of money to be made, and it’s hard to keep these people.
Q: How does the intellectual climate in L.A. compare to that in Boston?
A: Boston is a very special place because the fraction of life in Boston focused on intellectual issues is higher than in any other city. With Harvard, MIT and a myriad of other schools, you sense that the academic world plays a large role in the life of the city. Los Angeles may have as much intellectual activity, but it is much more diffuse and you don’t have the same sense of intensity. Even though I love being at Caltech, I miss that.
Q: You are primarily an administrator at Caltech and before that at Rockefeller University. Does that leave any time for your own research?
A: Not enough. I’ve got a little time for my own research, and I don’t have enough time to really enjoy it and to just sit around and toss off ideas with people. I’m still working on some very exciting issues, and I’ve got good people at the lab. But I do wish I had a little more leisure to enjoy, which is unrealistic at this point.
President, California Institute of Technology
New York, 1938
Bachelor’s in chemistry, Swathmore College; doctorate in biology, Rockefeller University
Career Turning Point:
High school summer program in biological research
Most Admired Person:
Married, one daughter