Novato-based Buck Institute for Research on Aging could stand to lose $3.4 million — almost a tenth of its annual budget — under cuts to the National Institutes of Health proposed by the Trump administration.
The NIH was targeted with a $5.8 billion proposed cut, nearly 18.5 percent of its $31.3 billion budget for 2016. Last year Buck Institute received almost half of its operating funds from NIH grants, about $17.3 million of its $36 million total budget. A reduction of 18.5 percent in the $17.3 million in total grants would amount to about $3.2 million.
The Buck institute has about 186 employees. Half of them hold doctoral degrees; two are physicians. There are 18 faculty members who seek grants from the NIH and other sources to fund their own labs, almost like entrepreneurs.
The NIH funds research in many diseases including cancer, heart disease and mental illness with grants to some 300,000 researchers.
In January, the North Bay Business Journal published a cover story about Eric Verdin, the new CEO of Buck Institute. Verdin, a physician and professor at UCSF, replaced former CEO Brian Kennedy, who served some six years and resigned in October. A month later the board announced Verdin’s appointment along with pledges from a few board members totaling $11 million to shore up Buck’s strained budget.
Raising money is essential, said Verdin, who pointed to the recent home run by Unity Biotechnology, a Buck spinoff co-founded by Nathaniel David. Unity raised $116 million from six investors in a funding round reported in October.
Unity has powerhouse funding backers including ARCH Venture Partners, Fidelity Investments, Mayo Clinic Ventures, Bezos Expeditions (Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder), Venrock and Founders Fund (headed by Peter Thiel, 49-year-old San Francisco billionaire, Stanford Law graduate, Trump supporter and PayPal co-founder.) Buck has an equity position in Unity.
Verdin serves as a consultant to Calico, the Google-backed aging-research company founded by Google and headed by CEO Art Levinson. San Francisco-based Calico has part of its research operations on the Buck campus.
“Calico is a huge player in the field,” Verdin said. “Google puts its might behind an effort and they choose to be here. It’s a form of validation.”
The Buck’s 25-member board has numerous business leaders, including: Larry Rosenberger, chairman, former president and CEO, Fair Isaac; Charles M. Stockholm, former chairman, Citibank International; Roy Eisenhardt, former president of Oakland A’s baseball team; Charles La Follette, president of La Follette Capital and former board member, Pacific Stock Exchange; and Richard Rosenberg, former chairman and CEO, Bank of America. Rosenberg was among donors on the Buck board who brought in $11 million in pledges, announced in November.
The $11 million will be used for “relaunching us,” Verdin said, “Buck acceleration.” He aims to continue the effort to reach $15 million. “We’re going to need more,” he said. “We need to be more nimble in how we look at revenue sources,” adopting a model more like a business. San Francisco-based Gladstone Institutes used such a model successfully, he said. Verdin worked previously as a faculty member at Gladstone, where he researched aging. Gladstone’s budget is $80 million, funding studies of cardiovascular disease, virology, immunology and neurological disorders.
Philanthropy brought the Buck Institute about $7 million last year. Leasing buildings on its campus brought in nearly $3 million. Corporate-sponsored research brings additional revenue.
Former CEO Kennedy was criticized by some faculty members when he sought financial support from board members with ties to the Middle East, and for perceived conflicts of interest.
“Every place has to manage the interface of science and commercial interest,” Verdin said. “As scientists, we struggle.”
James Dunn covers technology, biotech, law, the food industry, and banking and finance. Reach him at: email@example.com or 707-521-4257