William Gates and Paul Allen, co-founders of Microsoft Corp., thegiant computer software firm, have bought a $10 million stake in theequity of Darwin Molecular Corp. and taken seats on the board of thesmall gene-sequencing company located in Bothell, Wash. GeorgeRathmann, who headed Amgen from 1980 to 1990 and is one of thebest known figures in the biopharmaceutical industry, has also beenelected to the company's seven-member board.This is not Gates' first involvement with the biotech industry. He isalso the principal investor in ICOS Corp. also of Bothell, a companythat develops therapeutics for chronic inflammatory diseases, whichRathmann heads. In addition, Gates helped establish a Department ofMolecular Biotechnology at the University of Washington in Seattleand attract Leroy Hood, an expert in DNA sequencing technology, tohead it. Hood subsequently became one of the founders of Darwin.Mark Pearson, Darwin's president and CEO, told BioWorld that Gatesand Allen share an interest in the application of computer sciences tomedicine."They are extremely smart people who bring to Darwin the experienceof building a large company based on a vision of what can be done.They are interested in computers and their application tobiotechnology. And they bring business acumen that will be helpful tous in dealing with other companies," Pearson said.Pearson would not disclose exactly how much of Darwin that Gatesand Allen have bought. However, he said they are majorityshareholders in the company.Bruce Butcher, of the Butcher and Williams law firm in Seattle whichrepresents Darwin's investors, said that more important than thefinancial investment Gates has made in Darwin, is the time he willinvest in the company and the prestige he will bring.Butcher said the investment of Gates and Allen is part of a larger roundof private financing that will be completed in the next three weeks.Pearson said he did not know if Gates plans to apply the experience hewill gain with Darwin to develop products for Microsoft.The infusion of cash from the current round of financing will allowDarwin to undertake a high-speed gene sequencing program _ anapproach which will put them in direct competition with companiessuch as Human Genome Sciences Inc., of Rockville, Md., and IncytePharmaceuticals Inc., of Palo Alto, Calif. According to Pearson,Darwin is currently hiring computer scientists who are experts ininformatics _ the computer-based analysis of DNA and proteinstructures. The company has also attracted David Galas, who formerlyheaded the U.S. Department of Energy's Human Genome Project, toserve as vice president for research and development.Pearson said Darwin's approach will differ from its competitors'because it will focus on identifying therapeutic products for thecompany to develop itself through a technique called molecularevolution. "Our focus is to get complete sequences of individual genesfrom very different chromosomal regions that we know are associatedwith different diseases," Pearson noted.By using a combination of DNA sequencing, molecular evolution, andinformatics, the company hopes to rapidly synthesize, select anddevelop small-molecule drugs against both currently-known disease-associated proteins as well as those identified by DNA sequencing. Itplans to produce and use chemical libraries containing complexmixtures of millions of small organic molecules to derive drugcandidates.Darwin says its approach "moves into the next generation ofbiotechnology _ from simply finding molecules with promisingtherapeutic properties to evolving molecules in the test tube thatcontain specific, desired new properties not found in nature."Applying the principle of "the survival of the fittest" to existingmolecules, the company will screen, reproduce and put moleculesthrough selective tests, generation after generation, until new moleculeswith unique, desired properties are produced, the company says. In thisway, Darwin hopes to compress the process of evolution into a fewweeks.
-- Philippa Maister
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