Biology and Bill Gates

How his passion imbues his portfolio and philanthropy

William H. Gates III had his pick of dinner companions at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last January. But one night, instead of dining with foreign dignitaries or business leaders, the Microsoft Corp. chairman met with a handful of distinguished scientists. At the table were Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences; Ilan Chet, president of Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science; and Sir Robert May, president of the Royal Society of London, among others. For more than three hours, the group brainstormed about how to fix some of the world's most vexing public-health dilemmas.

Gates calls biology a hobby. But biologists who have spent time with him say he's no lightweight when it comes to science -- and he's also a major player on the business side. Through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, he has committed more than $3 billion in the past five years to bringing basic health care to developing nations. Gates estimates that his personal investments in biotech companies are worth $300 million to $400 million. And on Apr. 24, he was poised to announce another major contribution -- a $70 million grant to help the University of Washington build a new home for its departments of genome sciences and bioengineering.

Gates says the grant doesn't augur a new focus on gene sciences at his foundation. His chief preoccupation continues to be tackling infectious diseases and other scourges in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. "The real missing element is applying biology to the diseases of the developing world," he explains. "That's where the market mechanism doesn't work." The government and big pharmaceutical companies will go on investing heavily in genomics. But only philanthropy can create financial incentives to treat such common Third World afflictions as tuberculosis and meningitis. And in such areas, says Alberts, "he's making a huge difference."

Gates's early forays into biotech were fueled more by fascination with biology than beneficence. In 1990, he invested in Icos Corp., a Bothell (Wash.) company that developed an erectile dysfunction drug. This remains his largest biotech holding, and he still sits on the board. Through the 1990s he added other stakes. But recently, he has eased up on such investments, instead channeling his biomedical efforts through the foundation. Gates sat down with BusinessWeek Seattle Bureau Chief Jay Greene to talk about his gift to the University of Washington and his fascination with the field. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

What do you hope will be the impact of the grant?

The University of Washington is one of a reasonably small number of places that has a critical mass of people with genomic expertise. There are some very exciting frontiers in this work that have yet to be tackled, even though the basic sequencing project [the Human Genome Project] is now essentially done. With this grant, coupled with the kind of operating money they'll get, mostly from the government, they'll be able to do a huge amount of work.

Do you see an opportunity to fund more genomics research?

Our foundation, in general, does not fund basic biology research activities. And this grant does not represent a new direction for our global health program. If my dad [who sits on the university's board of regents] wasn't involved in this campaign, if the university weren't part of this community, this wouldn't have made our list of things to give to.

Won't genomics facilitate vaccine research for diseases that afflict the developing world?

Absolutely. Solutions to all biological problems are greatly advanced by the sequencing work and the new tools that are created. The pace of progress in biology creates a foundation that naturally gets picked up by the biotech and pharmaceutical industry to solve rich-world diseases. This is attractive science. It's science that people want to work on. At the same time, the leverage that we do in our developing-world work is greatly advanced by the basic funding from the National Institutes of Health.

In an essay seven years ago, you wrote that biotech was a hobby. What is it that intrigues you so much?

My fascination is broadly with biology and the fact that our increased understanding of biology allows for breakthroughs in a broad set of diseases. Most of my biology reading nowadays is like something I read this weekend, an article on tuberculosis. The week before that, it was a book called AIDS in the Twenty-First Century [by Tony Barnett]. I like to read general biology -- things about the immune system and advances in that area -- because it lays the foundation for my part of the dialogue at the foundation about what things we ought to pursue. The human body is the most complex system ever created. The more we learn about it, the more appreciation we have about what a rich system it is. We really are scratching the surface.

I'm curious about your self-education in this area. There's a story about your going on vacation to Hawaii and polishing off James D. Watson's Molecular Biology of the Gene.

That was Brazil. [Gates pulls a copy from his bookshelf.] It's fun to read about this stuff. When I was in school, I took a lot more physics, chemistry, and math than I did biology. And those are all fields that I still like to read about. But the amount of reading I end up doing that's related to evolution and biology is huge. Almost everyone I talk to reads [Richard] Dawkins, [Steven] Pinker, [Stephen Jay] Gould, which is all evolutionary stuff. There's a level of this reading that I do simply because I'm interested. But I don't think I would have spent time learning about the immune system if understanding vaccines weren't something I considered very important.

Do you still handle most of your biotech investing yourself?

In the last few years, we haven't done much biotech investing. If you go back four or five years, we did some. I had some involvement in each biotech investment, because it was a science-related thing. I have friends who are interested. So they're often bringing me things -- some good, some not so good.

If there were all the time in the world, going out and finding neat new biotech companies might be a fun thing to do. The time I spend reading about biology-related topics has been very focused on developing-world diseases -- so that I can be articulate about those things. Recently, because of the foundation, I haven't focused that much on biotech.

Tell me about your dinner at Davos with Alberts, Chet, California Institute of Technology President David Baltimore, and NIH Director Elias Zerhouni.

It was quite an international group. I was saying: "Look, what's going on? Why haven't there been faster advances in AIDS treatments? What are the basic scientific questions around this that we don't understand?" It was a wide-ranging conversation and a great privilege to sit and talk with those guys. They're all people we will be collaborating with.

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