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Betting on the Biological Sciences
Cathie and Pitch Johnson, '50, endow the directorship of Stanford Bio-X.
"It's no accident that Bio-X has grown up here in Silicon Valley, a place where many see the value in high-risk, high-payoff approaches to invention," says Carla Shatz.
As the director of Bio-X, Shatz has been at the center of pathbreaking teamwork among Stanford scientists, doctors, and engineers.
Her leadership has helped Bio-X researchers make remarkable discoveries, such as microscopes tiny enough to see how viruses evade detection and infect cells; neural prosthetics that enable paralyzed people to control robotic arms and move computer cursors with their minds; and optogenetics, a technique that uses light to activate cells and may lead to advances in Alzheimer's and depression treatments.
Now, an endowed directorship will help Bio-X foster even more breakthroughs. Cathie and Pitch Johnson, '50, a pioneer Silicon Valley venture capitalist, have established the David Starr Jordan Directorship in Stanford Bio-X. Shatz, who is also the Sapp Family Provostial Professor and a professor of biology and neurobiology, is the first to hold the directorship.
An Eye for Investments
As a co-founder of one of the valley's first venture capital firms, Pitch has an enviable track record in backing high-risk, high-reward efforts. He's helped launch more than 200 companies, including Tandem Computers and the biosciences giant Amgen.
Pitch, who studied mechanical engineering at Stanford, has long had an affinity for the life sciences and interdisciplinary research. After completing an MBA at Harvard in 1952 and eventually returning to Palo Alto in 1962, he took a Stanford course on molecular biology in 1964. In this new undergraduate course he learned how human genes could be put into other organisms and human proteins could be produced.
He had already been a leader in establishing the region's biotech industry when fellow venture capitalist Samuel Colella, MBA '71, invited him to join as an early member of the Bio-X advisory council. "I was excited and jumped right in," says Pitch.
Since then, Bio-X seed grants to over 100 faculty teams have led to transformative research across the university. And with interdisciplinary opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students, Bio-X is training a new breed of scientist. It began as a bold experiment in 1998; by now Bio-X is a proven concept, one that is still growing and changing.
A Leader Who Listens
Cathie says one reason for their gift was the limited and declining support of research from traditional federal agencies. Another was Shatz's leadership. "Like Pitch, I have been struck by Carla's feeling of optimism and enthusiasm for collaborative research," she says.
It takes a unique set of talents to lead Stanford Bio-X. As director, Shatz helps Bio-X draw from the expertise of hundreds of faculty and students from medicine, science, engineering, biology, and other fields. "She's a first-rate scientist," Pitch says. "Much of what enables her success, however, is that she can make things happen through others, which is not true of all scientists."
The first woman granted tenure in a basic science department at Stanford School of Medicine, Shatz is a member of the Royal Society, one of the oldest scientific societies in the world, which also listed Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin as members.
"Her one weak spot is she can't talk track and field very well," Pitch says, smiling. He was a Stanford track athlete, and his father was an Olympic hurdler and the Stanford track coach in the early 1940s.
Steeped in Stanford History
In keeping with the family's personal history at the university, Cathie and Pitch named the Bio-X directorship for David Starr Jordan, Stanford's first president and a biologist. They wanted to honor Jordan's legacy of excellence in the natural sciences.
Stanford history is also on display in the offices of their family foundation: Their collection of historic photographs of Palo Alto includes a shot of Palm Drive before the 1906 earthquake (with the original steeple of Memorial Church still intact) and a picture of the site of the fishing tackle shop where, as a teenager, Pitch shook hands with Stanford's third president, Ray Lyman Wilbur.
Over the years, Pitch and Cathie have supported many areas at Stanford, with gifts to financial aid, athletics, undergraduate research, engineering, the arts, the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, and the Hoover Institution. The Franklin & Catherine Johnson Foundation, which they have formed, helps support many other Bay Area nonprofits, large and small. They know even at an institution of Stanford's size and stature, the right investment can make a big difference.
As Shatz puts it, "Cathie and Pitch's gift will amplify the magic of Bio-X."
PHOTO: Steve Castillo