Investments in the Future
Funding Basic Research
What fascinates Jonathan Rothberg about science is the ability to either learn something no one knew before or to create an instrument that enables the discovery of something new. He is a serial entrepreneur best known for inventing high-speed, massively parallel DNA sequencing. The company he founded, 454 Life Sciences, brought to market a new method for sequencing genomes. After creating the next-generation sequencing, he went on to develop the first sequencing on a semiconductor chip, thus enabling the $1,000 genome. With this discovery he founded Ion Torrent, where they actually sequenced the genome of Intel cofounder Gordon Moore.
The idea for the high-speed sequencing came to him when his infant son was rushed to intensive care and he realized how critical personal genomes were to human health. That invention is now in use at major pharmaceutical companies, universities, genome centers, and medical centers around the world—and his son, Noah, lived to inspire yet another company.
Rothberg has supported Physics Professor Max Tegmark’s research; he decided to get involved because of the tremendous scope of the project and the vision behind it. Tegmark notes that “Jonathan’s generous support has been invaluable for our Omniscope project, which is developing technology to help make the largest-ever 3-D map of our universe. He is an inspiration to me, with his knack for overcoming daunting challenges through outside-the-box technological innovation.” Rothberg says of Tegmark: “He is one of those people who, as Steve Jobs was fond of saying, is actually putting a dent in the universe” and that “he intends to map the universe at a resolution never before obtainable.”
Although Rothberg’s undergraduate degree in chemical engineering is from Carnegie Mellon University and his PhD in biology from Yale, he encourages others to support science at MIT. “Ultimately, it is research that raises the quality of life, and if you love science and discovery and people then you should support basic research.”
Ion Torrent was acquired in 2010 by Life Technologies. Rothberg also founded CuraGen Corporation, a company dedicated to using genome technologies in drug development; RainDance Technology, a company developing general droplet microfluidic lab-on-chip technologies; and Clarifi Corporation, an analytical software company. Rothberg is inspired to create companies that impact the quality of life and is always looking for like-minded people to join him.
– by Erin McGrath
(A version of this story ran in physics@MIT.)
Victoria Seaver Dean is president of The Seaver Institute, a foundation that since 1983 has supported nine MIT projects involving basic research in a wide range of fields, from marine science to musicology to the molecular causes of aging. Those projects have since launched the careers of several MIT professors who have gone on to distinguish themselves in their fields and in the academy. Two, for example, have won the National Medal of Science, and one is an MIT Institute Professor.
“In 1983, The Seaver Institute introduced a program that I call ‘seed money for research,’ where we give money to start a project to see if a novel idea will work. If it works, we know that other people will fund it and ramp it up from its seed phase into a larger phase. We generally provide the first two years of support to get a high-risk idea off the ground.
“That’s important because the government doesn’t really support research at that stage anymore. Over time, government agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health have become conservative. They want to know that a project is going to be successful. We don’t mind the prospect of failure. Frankly, there are very few projects that, quote, fail. Something is always learned even if it isn’t necessarily what was originally intended.
“So we fill a gap in the funding cycle, and we’ve been told since the get-go that this is very important. And it doesn’t have to be a young researcher. It could be someone who has a lot of skill and experience in one area, but who wants to take that skill to another field. It’s often hard to get funding for that because it’s not the main focus of their work.
“Unlike other foundations, we sprinkle our funds around to launch a number of potential ideas as opposed to focusing on one particular problem or area.
“One MIT project is my poster child for what we like to fund because, first of all, it’s cross-disciplinary. In music21, Dr. Michael Scott Cuthbert bridged the fields of computer science and music theory to create software for the analysis of music.” [Cuthbert is a pioneer in digital musicology, the idea that if you turn huge numbers of songs into data and analyze it with a computer, you can learn things about music that are otherwise difficult or impossible to know.]
“You could use music21, for example, to determine what makes French music French. Plus, it’s an open-source program so everybody can use it, and it encourages modifications so people can adapt it to different musical styles.
“Anyway, he had a problem that needed to be solved, but no one would fund his innovative idea. And now, music21 has made a huge difference in the music world. The whole world is enhanced.”