Robert Tjian, Howard Hughes Medical Institute

TITLE: President

FUNDING AREAS: Scientific research, genetic research, and science education

CONTACT: tjianr@hhmi.org, 301-215-8550 

IP TAKE: Tjian oversees hundreds of millions of dollars in scientific research grants every year. His ethos in choosing how to invest: Fund smart people, and good science will follow.

PROFILE: What is it about scientists and garages? Bill Gates started Microsoft in his parents' garage. Steve Jobs used his parents' garage to build early computer prototypes. Apparently, people have an aversion to too much science going on inside their homes. While Robert Tjian wasn't relegated to the garage by his parents, he did begin his biotech legacy in a small, rented space above a garage in Belmont, California. Now he is president of the prestigious and well-endowed Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

HHMI has the distinction of being both a major medical research organization itself and one of the nation's largest medical and research philanthropies. The organization has an endowment of $16.1 billion, and spends about $800 million on research and $100 million on science education in a given year. Seed Magazine reports that HHMI is the richest privately-endowed funding agency in the United States.

Tjian's journey to the head of HHMI is a fascinating one. He was born in Hong Kong, his family fled China before the Communist Revolution, and he was then raised in New Jersey. Tjian attended college at UC Berkeley, where he impressively talked his way into a biochemistry lab gig before actually taking any biochemistry courses. Tjian did, however, end up majoring in biochemistry at Berkeley, and subsequently earned a PhD in biochemistry from Harvard in 1976.

After years in academia, Tjian founded a company called Tularik (in that rented space above the garage) with some $250 million in venture capital. Tjian envisioned that Tularik, by bringing together some of science's greatest minds, would become a mega-biotech conglomerate. That didn't happen, exactly, but Tularik did set in motion something that Tjian still does today at HHMI: finding the brightest minds in the biotech field and giving them resources to discover great things.

And that's really what Tjian, as well as HHMI in general, does: He finds smart people and funds their growth so that they can study cells and DNA, find cures for AIDS or cancer, and do other things that would be valuable for humanity.

As Tjian explains, HHMI's principle funding priority is:

...to make sure that the investigator program continues on its successful pathway. We consistently try to identify the best talent out there and give them enough funding so that they can really follow their instincts. We don't tell them what to do. We bet more on people than projects. We are counting on their individual creativity and their passion for whatever projects they are trying to study.

So how can you access funding for your own creativity and passion? HHMI doesn't do much in the way of unsolicited grant proposals, but it does award funding to individuals and institutions through competitions. The competitions supported by HHMI change periodically; general information on current competitions and HHMI grant opportunities can be found here. HHMI also has a database of research projects it has funded over the years.