An expanded version of these remarks originally appeared in Nature Medicine.
Lasker Awards are given to individuals who open new fields of biomedical science by carrying out bold, high-risk experiments that have a high probability for failure. But if the experiments are successful, the rewards for advancing science and medicine are mighty. In many respects, this type of venture science resembles venture capital, a phenomenon in which a small group of investors puts up money to finance a start-up business that has no previous track record but has daring ideas.
Venture capital had its origins in 1957 when a professor at Harvard Business School, Georges Doriot, convinced several of his Boston colleagues to invest in a startup computer company founded by two MIT engineers with no business experience. Doriot named the startup Digital Equipment, which became the anchor company for Boston's famed Route 128 and the first of Doriot's launch of more than 200 start-ups. Digital soon became IBM's biggest competitor, producing the most popular mini-computers in the 1970s and 1980s. Doriot's initial $70,000 investment in 1957 had a market value of $400 million in the early 1970s — the best return on money ever seen at the time.
The modus operandi of Doriot and the early venture capitalists — 'no risks, no rewards' — was an heretical idea to Wall Street 35 years ago. Without 'no risks, no rewards', there would be no Apple Computer, no Microsoft, no Genentech, no Google, and even no Starbucks.
The phenomenal financial successes of venture capitalists have spawned a new venture called venture philanthropy. In contrast to traditional philanthropy, which typically supports projects that have a low risk of failure, venture philanthropy operates on the venture capital philosophy of 'no risks, no rewards'. The Georges Doriots of venture philanthropy are individuals like Bill and Melinda Gates, who take ultra-high risks, back many daring schemes, assess them critically, and then eliminate the failures as quickly as possible. This steely approach enhances the chances that the Gates Foundation's high-risk focus on poor-country diseases will ultimately produce new vaccines and more effective medical delivery systems that are essential for beating third-world diseases. The Economist magazine has coined a new term to refer to this new type of venture philanthropy — "Billanthropy."
Like venture capitalists and venture philanthropists, venture scientists are perpetually involved in a struggle to climb to the top of the ladder. The struggles to reach the top in science or in any endeavor are powerfully illustrated by a sculpture in the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas — created by the contemporary African-American artist Martin Puryear.
Puryear's sculpture is a tall wooden ladder (36 feet high) suspended by invisible wires, enabling it to float from the ceiling of the museum's atrium. Puryear constructed the ladder from a single oak tree. The bottom rung is 2 feet wide, and the top rung is 1 inch wide. There are about 100 rungs, most of which are at the top. The narrowing of the ladder towards the top creates a distorted visual perspective that evokes an illusionary goal that is unattainable. It is easy to get both feet on the first rung of the ladder, but it is an almost impossible struggle to reach the top. Opportunity narrows at the very highest reaches.
Puryear created this work to symbolize the struggles of Booker T. Washington, who was the dominant African-American figure in the US in the early 1900s. Booker T. Washington was born into slavery in 1856, was freed at age 9, and by age 25 had established the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama as a trade school for African-Americans. His autobiography, Up from Slavery, is still read today, more than 100 years after it was written. Harvard University conferred an honorary degree on Washington in 1896 when he was only 40 years of age.
Puryear's ladder can be thought of as a universal metaphor for everyone who struggles to do something worthwhile. But there's another way to think about the ladder that may be more relevant to venture scientists and Lasker Awards.
If we turn the Booker T. Washington ladder upside down, the difficult challenge is not at the top, but at the bottom — getting your little toe on the first rung. Here the ladder symbolizes the struggles of venture scientists like Barry T. Marshall, who made the totally unexpected discovery that peptic ulcers are caused not by stress, but by a bacterial infection that can be cured with antibiotics. Marshall got his first toe on the ladder by doing a bold experiment in 1983 that opened a new field, but virtually no one recognized the significance of his work when it was first reported. For many years, the Barry T. Marshalls of the world have the first 94 rungs of the upside-down ladder all to themselves until he or she reaches the 95th rung — the 5th rung from the top — where there's now room for other scientists to jump on the bandwagon and join in on the fun and excitement of a new venture. This is the tipping point when a new field of science or medicine explodes with widening opportunities and becomes recognized as Lasker Prize-worthy.
And now it's time to tell you about this year's venture scientists who are being honored with Lasker awards. I will present the Basic Award. Huda Zoghbi, a member of the Jury from Baylor College of Medicine, will present the Clinical Award. And Joan Steitz, a member of the Jury from Yale, will present the Special Achievement Award.
Seated, left to right: Huda Zoghbi, Baylor College of Medicine ● Paul Nurse, The Rockefeller University ● Joan Steitz, Yale University ● Joseph Goldstein, Chair of the Jury, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center ● Eric Kandel, Columbia University ● J. Michael Bishop, University of California School of Medicine● Thomas Stossel, Brigham & Women's Hospital
Middle Row, left to right: Bruce Stillman, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory ● Kim Nasmyth, University of Oxford ● Titia de Lange, The Rockefeller University ● Larry Jameson, Northwestern University ● William Paul, National Institutes of Health ● Stuart Kornfeld, Washington University School of Medicine ● Michael Brown, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center ● Carla Shatz, Harvard University ● Larry Zipursky, University of California, Los Angeles ● Martin Raff, MRC Laboratory for Molecular Cell Biology, University College London
Third Row, left to right: Harold Varmus, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center ● Günter Blobel, The Rockefeller University ● Jack Dixon, University of California, San Diego ● Craig Thompson, University of Pennsylvania Cancer Center ● Richard Lifton, Yale University ● Irving Weissman, Stanford University ● Gregory Petsko, Brandeis University
Not pictured: Stanley Cohen, Stanford University School of Medicine