But then, "Guest Speaker: Craig Venter," caught my eye on the meeting notice. To me, Venter is a rock-star of science, primarily famous for his drive and success in sequencing the Human Genome:
Frustrated with what Venter viewed as the slow pace of progress in the Human Genome project, and unable to get funds for his ideas, he sought funding from the private sector to fund Celera Genomics. The goal of the company was to sequence the entire human genome and release it into the public domain for non-commercial use in much less time and for much less cost than the public human genome project. The company planned to profit from their work by creating a value-added database of genomic data to which users could subscribe for a fee. The goal consequently put pressure on the public genome program and spurred several groups to redouble their efforts to produce the full sequence. DNA from five demographically different individuals was used by Celera to generate the sequence of the human genome; one of the individuals was Venter himself. In 2000, Venter and Francis Collins of the National Institutes of Health and U.S. Public Genome Project jointly made the announcement of the mapping of the human genome, a full three years ahead of the expected end of the Public Genome Program. [emphasis added]In fact, being the nerd that I am, someone like Craig Venter is more of a draw to me than, say, someone like Mick Jagger, though admittedly, Jagger might possibly be somewhat more entertaining.
So I said to my wife, "Why yes dear, there is nothing I'd like better than attending this school meeting!" She looked at me skeptically with raised eyebrows, to which I replied, "No, really. I'm serious!" So we went. Or rather, I went. On the night of the meeting she decided she was too tired and decided not to attend.
There were between 50 and 100 people at the meeting. I was surprised. After all, if it was Jagger instead of Venter, I think it might've been more crowded. I was definitely disappointed that someone that I think is so important would only draw that few people. On the other hand, it was more intimate than if it was a big crowd.
One gentlemen there really stood out. Or should I say stood up? And up and up. He was 6' 11" which is really, really tall and probably 8 inches taller than the next tallest person in attendance. It turned out to be retired NBA superstar Bill Walton who happens to be on the board of directors of one of Venter's ventures. In fact, the main event was a conversation with Bill Walton asking Craig Venter various questions about his personal life, genomics, and his views on education. Two superstars for the price of one!
Some interesting tidbits:
- On education, the first thing Venter noted was that he had terrible grades and barely graduated from high school and that was only possible because he talked a teacher into giving him a D- instead of an F in a required class. While I'm not sure that background gives him a lot of credibility to pontificate on how high schools should teach life science, he said that two things they should teach (but don't) are how to take risk, and how to fail (or, more accurately, how to recover from failure).
- On competitiveness of biotech, he's confident that even though Europe and China are pumping huge amounts of money into this area, the United States will maintain a lead for a long time. He says that in the United States, a great deal of the funding for biotech comes from an unusual intersection of individual philanthropy and investment (venture) capital which is far more creative, versatile, and nimble than the massive, but blunt and poorly directed funding by the European and Chinese governments.
- On the direction of biotech in general and the human genome in particular, he feels that huge advances in all aspects of health care will be coming in the next ten years. He feels that this is a fantastic time to invest in biotech companies.
- On sequencing human genomes, he feels that the clause in Obamacare that enables everyone to get insurance without regard for pre-existing conditions is critically important because that enables everyone to get their genome sequenced without having to worry about likely genetic based diseased states (a type of pre-existing condition) which could have precluded them from getting affordable insurance. Having everybody's genome sequenced will enable optimal health therapies to be personally designed for each and every person over their entire lifetime, increasing both health and longevity.