In Seattle’s South Lake Union — a short walk from Amazon’s headquarters and the offices of Facebook and countless other technology companies — the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center is having its own tech boom.
The Hutch is a mainstay in the region’s scientific world and is one of the top cancer research centers in the country — and it is increasingly embracing technology as a vital part of its work.
Nowhere is that embrace more obvious than in the changes announced Friday to its board of trustees.
The board elected Matt McIlwain, the managing director of Madrona Venture Group, as its chair, replacing former Washington governor Christine Gregoire, who will remain a board member. The board also appointed two new high-profile members: Allan Jones, president and CEO of the Allen Institute, and Lyft CFO Brian Roberts, a former high-ranking Microsoft executive.
The changes come amid a technological revolution in both the computer and biological sciences, all with a significant presence in Seattle.
“I frame it as the intersections of innovation,” McIlwain told GeekWire.
“There’s great innovation going on in the biological sciences, and really the chemical sciences, too,” he said. “But there’s also incredible things that have happened in computer science and data science with the ability to put concentrative, intensive amounts of resource against a problem,” namely cloud computing, artificial intelligence and machine learning.
Those innovations often work hand-in-hand, like precision medicine: A new approach to treating diseases like cancer that relies heavily on big data and machine learning.
“Cancer is as much of a data science and computational problem as it is a biological problem,” Fred Hutch COO Steve Stadum said. Precision medicine, which uses a patient’s data like their genome to predict which treatments will work best, is a prime example.
“That’s the vision, the future of cancer. It takes a lot of computational capability and a lot of data science methods and technologies, such as machine learning and things like that, that are emerging at the same time,” he said.
And the Hutch is making a decisive investment in that world, largely through relationships in Seattle and around the country. The new board members join a who’s-who of big names in technology and beyond.
The Hutch’s current board includes Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Amazon VP of Worldwide Commercial Sales Mike Clayville and former Safeco CEO Paula Reynolds. NanoString Technologies executive Kathy Surace-Smith also sits on the board, and will now serve as its vice chair.
McIlwain, who has served on the board for the past five years, pointed out that the deepening relationship between technology and the sciences is a relatively new one.
“It’s only in the last two years that we’ve ever had a current executive at Microsoft or Amazon — and now we have both in Mike Clayville and Satya Nadella — on the board of the Hutch,” McIlwain said.
As the Hutch and other science institutions have turned towards tech, tech is increasingly turning towards health. Microsoft has been increasing its healthcare work with its Healthcare NExT initiative, which recently launched projects like a partnership with Fred Hutch spin-out Adaptive Biotechnologies to map the immune system and create a blood test that can screen for hundreds of diseases at once.
Amazon, for its part, has been eyeing several healthcare verticals and launched a new healthcare initiative with JPMorgan Chase and Berkshire Hathaway to innovate in the area. Its ambitions in healthcare have been widely speculated in the past year and CNBC revealed Tuesday that Amazon is working with the Fred Hutch on a healthcare project, which the Hutch said may be unveiled later this year.
McIlwain declined to discuss potential partnerships with Microsoft and Amazon, but said: “There are interesting efforts going on with both of those companies, as well as others.”
McIlwain also highlighted Seattle’s unique abilities in both the research revolutionizing science and the technologies driving them.
“Seattle is a natural place for this. We are the cloud capital of the world. We have an incredible set of rich resources around machine learning and AI, both at the bigger companies like Microsoft and Amazon, the Artificial Intelligence Institute but I’d say easily 50 percent — probably 75 percent — of our companies are doing innovative things in some level of machine learning and AI,” he said.
For McIlwain, like many in the cancer world, the work is also personal. Both of his parents were cancer survivors and just three years ago his father passed away from melanoma after surviving previous bouts with kidney and prostate cancer.
But he is also drawn to the work by something else, a sense of possibility against all odds. He said technology has many parallels.
“I still remember, in 2007, hosting an event for startups in Capitol Hill. Andy [Jassy] and the web service folks got up there and said, ‘We have this idea for compute by the hour. You might want to give it a try,’” McIlwain said. The people at the event weren’t impressed.
“People thought it was just improbable that what became known as cloud computing was even going to work. But now, of course, it’s beyond inevitable and Seattle has become a cornerstone of cloud computing, because we were the pioneers and the innovators. Bone marrow transplant was the same way, back in the day, when Donnall Thomas and others at the Hutch were doing it,” he said.
But the comparisons don’t stop there: “Immunotherapy, on the biotech side, and deep learning and applied machine learning — that’s kind of where they were 10 years ago. People thought they were improbable, that they weren’t going to work.”
Now, those technologies are revolutionizing lives across the world. Applied machine learning is blazing new trails into technologies previously impossible and immunotherapies are curing patients with terminal cancer.
That, McIlwain says, is truly something to work towards.