J. Craig Venter on Decision to Leave NIH
  J. Craig Venter     Biography    
Recorded: 02 Mar 2006

So the period that I was at NIH doing the early phases of the genome project were from 1987 to—1992 is when I left NIH to form my own research institute, The Institute for Genomic Research. It was actually one of the most difficult decisions I’ve made. But you know the different institutes are funded along a disease basis. So the head of the neurology institute was getting more and more nervous that I was making breakthroughs outside the nervous system. I was making breakthroughs in heart disease and various genetic diseases characterizing the genome. So they were concerned, you know, that they were being seen as competing with this new center. The political environment there was increasingly intolerable just because of the politics about trying to get research funded to move it forward.

I wanted to go much faster than the genome center and other places wanted to go at that time. And I started getting incredible offers. I had two thousand dollars in the bank, that’s all I had. And I started getting offers to head up biotech companies and get multi-million dollar bonuses because people were excited. You know, the same people that in the genome center were very bothered by the EST method, pharmaceutical companies—people trying to make new treatments for disease— thought it was the most exciting thing that ever happened. And so I kept getting offers to go to companies, to start new biotech companies to apply this technique to human disease to really move things forward.

I didn’t want to run a biotech company. I really like doing basic research. When you look at all the advances I’ve made, they’ve all been in very basic research and applying those techniques. They have lots of commercial implications, as anything that affects a disease or understanding of disease process does, but I wanted to keep doing the basic science. So the only way I could do it, I had two wonderful offers; Amgen offered seventy million dollars to me to build the Amgen Institute in Washington and to head it up to start doing the EST method on a larger scale. And then another venture capital group, the late Wally Steinberg matched that offer, but said that I would have control over my own independent institute and they would start a company, Human Genome Sciences, to use the discoveries that I made to try and take them forward. I decided then in June of 1992 to leave NIH and it was very risky. I had a permanent job, guaranteed for life in the government with a good salary and I was not unhappy there. I had a chance to do the science. But it gave me the chance to change the scale of what I was doing by a couple of orders of magnitude, to go start my own research institution.

I think most people would never have made that decision. Most people won’t leave the safety, the guarantee of a salary, the guarantee of a job. Because I knew if we tried this and it failed, I would be out of work in six months. But I was just—you know, I believed in the approach and believed it so I took the risk. But I think every successful scientist is very ambitious. I wanted to scale up the work that I was doing. I saw that if the genome center wasn’t going to fund it I could get private funding to go a lot faster. I was dedicated to the science and what it was doing. But I created a new system. I went outside the existing system. And I think that act on its own became very threatening because everywhere it was built into, you write a grant, you apply to the government.

People usually turned them down, but occasionally you get money. But the government controls what you do. And all of a sudden I find a way to circumvent the whole system. I had a seventy million commitment, a grant to do whatever I wanted.I think it’s just—you know the freedom to do that was an extraordinary elixir to me. Fortunately I’ve been able to attract really top scientists to come and help with that process.

J. Craig Venter, biologist and genomic research pioneer, was born in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1946. Following military service in Vietnam, he studied biochemistry as an undergraduate at the University of California, San Diego, where he also received a Ph.D. in Physiology and Pharmacology in 1975. He joined the faculty of the Medical School of State University of New York at Buffalo in 1976, joining its affiliated Roswell Park Cancer Institute in 1982 as Professor and Associate Chief Cancer Research Scientist. Beginning in 1982, and for the next decade, Dr. Venter headed various sections of NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

In 1992 he founded The Institute for Genomic Research (known as TIGR,) where he and colleagues became the first to successfully sequence the genome of an entire organism. Dr. Venter's Celera Genomics, founded in 1998, used a strategy known as the whole genome shotgun approach to compete with the publicly-funded Human Genome Project, which served to accelerate the mapping of the whole human genome by 2000. Dr. Venter's current venture, the J. Craig Venter Institute, was formed in 2006, from the merger of several predecessor enterprises. A leader in genomic research, the J. Craig Venter Institute announced in January 2008, the largest synthetically derived DNA structure, advancing it towards its goal of creating a living cell based on an entirely synthetic genome. In September 2007, the J. Craig Venter Institute announced the sequencing of Dr. Venter's genome, the first sequencing of an individual's genome.

Among Dr. Venter's numerous awards and honors are the American Academy of Microbiology Fellow (1997), the American Chemical Society, Division of Biochemical Technology David Perlman Memorial Lectureship Award (2000), and the U.S. State Department, Secretary's Open Forum Public Service Award (2001). Dr. Venter is a member of the American Society of Human Genetics, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Society of Microbiology, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.