Gates gives $70 million to UW

Yesterday was a big day for genome research in Seattle.

Bill Gates opened his wallet for the UW again, announcing the largest private donation ever made to the UW, or to a Northwest school.

On the other side of the country, a prominent genome researcher brought to the UW by an earlier Gates gift was given one of the most prestigious awards for inventors.

Gates, UW administrators and other genome researchers hope more big days will keep coming for Seattle and the UW.

The $70 million gift from Gates to build a new genome-sciences building and bring 14 preeminent genomics experts to the UW ought to help.

"It is an incredible vote of confidence for the UW," said Regent Sally Jewell. "More important, for the future of the region, for genome sciences and in general."

What could affect the Puget Sound's future is the number of spinoff companies created from the increased amount of research in genome sciences.

"I think you'll see, on a relative basis, a significantly greater number of spinoffs," said Regent Jeff Brotman. "In order to have spinoffs, you have to have research and you have to have research facilities."

Brotman wasn't alone in his optimism.

"I think that the potential is enormous," said Dr. Robert Waterston, Gates' chair of the Department of Genome Sciences.

Gates' support of genome sciences at the UW did not start yesterday. In 1991, he donated $12 million to create the Department of Molecular Biotechnology -- a precursor of modern genomics. The Department merged with the Department of Genetics in September 2001 to form the Department of Genome Sciences.

One genome all-star, Leroy Hood, was lured to the UW by Gates' early gift. He left the California Institute of Technology to found the UW's new department.

Hood, 64, was honored yesterday in Boston with the 2003 Lemelson-MIT Prize -- the largest cash prize awarded to inventors.

Hood is being recognized for his enduring contribution to biology and genetics, namely for inventing a gene-sequencing machine during his time in California, aiding the timely completion of the Human Genome Project.

The award, named after the late inventor Jerome Lemelson, was established in 1994 to give prominence to inventors and encourage young people to become inventors.

Hood left the UW in 2000 to found the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle. Feeling constrained by the bounds of academia, Hood established the non-profit institute to pursue research interests that would be better served in a private setting.

When Hood departed from the UW, he left behind a legacy and not a vacancy. Hood's presence helped establish the UW as an institution on the forefront of genome research. In 2001, the National Institutes of Health granted the UW $30 million for the foundation of two of three national "centers of excellence" in genomic science.

The UW has long been at the forefront of genome research and played a critical part in the achievements Gates mentioned. A team of UW researchers, led by Dr. Maynard Olson, were part of the Human Genome Project, which recently finished decoding the building blocks of human life.

Olson, Waterston and Dr. Philip Green all worked on the project and were given the Gairdner Award. Eight awards were given to researchers on the project.

Green, a professor of genome sciences and computer science and engineering, came to the UW in 1994. He is excited to see the results of Gates' gift.

"The building alone will have a huge effect on research. It will allow our department to expand, it will increase the number of faculty and researchers," said Green. "We are in an interdisciplinary field, and being able to bring in additional faculty from various disciplines will enable us to push the field forward more quickly."

Of the $70 million, $60 million will provide the first chunk of the $150 million the building is slated to cost. It is planned to be built at the corner of 15th Avenue Northeast and Northeast Pacific Street, near the Physics-Astronomy Building.

The announcement of the new building comes after the Board of Regents approved a $51.7 million, 35-year lease of the Blue Flame Building on the south shore of Lake Union to provide research space for the School of Medicine. Microsoft's other founder, Paul Allen, owns the old Washington Natural Gas building.

Yesterday's gift, which came through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, falls inline with the foundation's focus on global health. The gift will lead to strides in bettering the world's health, the foundation hopes.

"Advances in genomics hold great promise for improving health in the developing world. Now that the human genome has been fully sequenced, important work lies ahead in turning this achievement into improved health," Gates said through the foundation's Web site.

Yesterday's gift brings the grand total of donations from the Gates family and the foundation to the UW to $151 million, said Connie Kravas, vice president for development and alumni realtions. Two buildings on campus already bear the Gates name -- Mary Gates Hall, named after Bill Gates' mother, and William H. Gates Hall, the soon-to-open law-school building named after his father and member of the Board of Regents. The law-school building involved a $12 million donation from Gates, while the renovation of Mary Gates Hall took $4.7 million, which included audio and visual upgrades.

The co-founder of Microsoft has left an impression on the University, UW officials said, and a mark on the future of large-scale private giving.

"It is nothing short of phenomenal. We are very fortunate to have this family in our community," said Jewell. "They set an amazing tone for philanthropy."

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