Systems biology is a new approach that studies complex interactions among networks of cells, tissues, and organisms, with the view that many aspects of biology and medicine cannot be understood except as interlinked phenomena. This often requires complicated measuring of simultaneous factors and then integration of the data using mathematical models. Another name often applied to this emerging discipline is quantitative biology. The deluge of data now being generated by automated gene sequencing, advanced imaging, and other technologies has overwhelmed the ability of biologists to make sense of it—so mathematicians, physicists, and statisticians are migrating into the field to help them draw useful inferences and models of complex life processes.
When government and commercial support for this new and highly speculative field proved impossible to come by in the early days, the seminal Institute for Systems Biology was established in 2000 as a nonprofit research organization supported by philanthropic funds. Individual donors like Bay Area financier Bill Bowes, whose William K. Bowes Jr. Foundation contributed $6 million, collectively offered $30 million to start the institute.
As it established scientific breakthroughs, this philanthropically launched organization (and its wider discipline) also began to attract hundreds of millions of dollars of venture capital. By 2012, ISB had spun off 17 separate for-profit companies. That same year, the Institute for Systems Biology was ranked as the fourth most successful scientific-research institute in the world (assessed by the impact of their published papers), and today there are 70 or 80 copycat institutes located across different parts of the globe.
“That’s the kind of thing that a front-end investment by philanthropy can lead to,” comments ISB founder Leroy Hood. “What I’ve always loved about philanthropy is it’s money that has a potential to be flexible. It’s money that can catalyze new ideas. It’s money that lets you push the frontiers, follow the leading edge. Hard to do that at the National Institutes of Health. Today, if you haven’t completed two thirds of your research, you’re probably not going to get a NIH grant because everything is so competitive and so conservative. So a philanthropist who is willing to say ‘Yes, I’ll step in and help you find something new’ is a jewel.”
Hedge-fund founder James Simons has stepped up as a donor in just this way. In 2005 he funded the Simons Center for Systems Biology at Princeton. Three years later his foundation put additional millions of dollars into quantitative work at Rockefeller University, one of the foremost biological research institutions in the country. He also planted seeds that year at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a birthplace of molecular biology. Those seeds entered full bloom in 2014 when James and Marilyn Simons donated $50 million to expand and institutionalize the Simons Center for Quantitative Biology at Cold Spring Harbor Lab.
- Bowes Foundation support for Institute for Systems Biology, “Million Dollar List” of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, milliondollarlist.org/donors/william-k-bowes-jr-foundation
- Philanthropy magazine interview with Leroy Hood, January 31, 2013, philanthropyroundtable.org/topic/philanthropic_freedom/interview_with_leroy_hood
- Simons Foundation discussion of Systems Biology, simonsfoundation.org/features/foundation-news/systems-biology