January 6, 2014
5 to Watch in 2014

Lee spearheads Jackson Lab's $1B CT bioscience bet

Photo | Pablo Robles
Charles Lee hopes to lead groundbreaking research at Jackson Laboratory in Farmington.

Here's a look at five Greater Hartford executives and leaders who will likely make headlines in 2014. The Hartford Business Journal will keep close tabs on this influential group and report back a year from now what they accomplished.

By the end of 2014, Charles Lee will lead a team of genetic researchers in a newly constructed Farmington lab where Connecticut has placed much money and hope.

As scientific director for the nonprofit Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine, Lee — a former molecular genetics research director at Harvard — is the face of the state's ambitious $1 billion Bioscience Connecticut initiative.

Jackson Laboratory, or JAX, is receiving $291 million in state loans and grants, Connecticut's largest-ever bioscience investment, which state and academic officials hope will spawn 16,000 jobs in 25 years.

"There's tons of pressure," Lee said during a recent interview at the UConn Health Center campus, where construction on JAX's 189,000 square foot facility was humming along.

Since starting his new role in August, Lee's schedule has been packed with travel, lectures, phone calls, and meetings with his team and researchers at other schools. "It's been a total whirlwind," he said. "But this is the way it has to be, because there's so much to do."

Lee is renowned for his role in the 2004 discovery of widespread structural variation in the human genome, which helped scientists understand why one person might be more susceptible to a particular disease than another.

Since August, Lee has served as Jackson Lab's ambassador and buzz builder at schools and conferences across the country, where he's been aggressively recruiting scientists and teachers, and panning for research deals with colleges and medical providers.

Lee gushes about the hires he's made so far, who hail from sectors like applied research and pharmaceutical R&D. JAX has signed nearly 50 doctoral-level researchers, including 12 principal investigators.

Lee said the state's investment will pay off; not only in the 300 jobs JAX promised to create, but in future spin-off companies and creating momentum to lure top researchers and students. Success can also be tracked by the number of research discoveries made by Jackson Lab scientists.

"We jump up a level in terms of expertise to bring technologies, attract students, and other scientists," said Marc E. Lalande, professor and chair of UConn's Department of Genetics and Developmental Biology, who has known Lee for several years and is coordinating some joint research grants with him. "The work he was doing … was really cutting edge in terms of using modern sequencing and applying it to the reality in the clinic."

Though it's getting big bucks from the state, JAX is making a big bet, with plans to invest more than $1 billion over the next 20 years in Connecticut. To make that investment worthwhile, the nonprofit needed to persuade Lee to be point man.

Lee was hesitant at first to leave a comfortable and successful position at Harvard, but the chance to build a world-class research organization from scratch appealed to him. "This was an opportunity where I felt like I was ready to make a big difference," he said. "We can make a difference here."

Lalande said Lee's academic pedigree and personality make him a natural fit to lead a collaborative entity like JAX.

It's tough to predict what new discoveries might emerge, Lee said, but the seeds are being sown.

"When I hear the discussions right now about projects we want to do, and I see the practicality behind it, I think that this couldn't have happened if JAX Genomic Medicine wasn't here," Lee said. "When you put these people in the same room, having them collide like pool balls, I really think good things will happen."

Read HBJ's other 5 to Watch in 2014 features:

David Brantner, commercial engines president, Pratt & Whitney

Bruce Becker, private developer

Andrea Barton Reeves, president and CEO, HARC

Lori Pelletier, executive secretary-treasurer, Connecticut AFL-CIO

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