Life on the ‘Dark Side’: HSPH alum describes role of private sector in public health

Gerald Chan, SM '75, ScD '79
Gerald Chan, SM '75, ScD '79

May 10, 2011 — A public health professional who works in private industry can play as important a role in improving the human condition as those who work in academia, medicine, and similar fields, alumnus Gerald L. Chan, SM ’75, ScD ’79, told a packed house on April 13, 2011, in Kresge Auditorium G3.

Chan emphasized that opportunities for promoting the public good abound at the intersection of science and the private sector. Doing something different, such as working for industry, “is not something to be feared,” said Chan, a venture capitalist and co-founder of Morningside, a privately held investment group. His talk, “Science, the Private Sector and the Public Good,” was part of the Dean’s Distinguished Lecture Series.

Chan said he was honored to speak at HSPH. “I’m probably the ‘black sheep’ of the School,” Chan said with a smile. “Not many graduates of this school go into the private sector. But I would like to report that I haven’t gone completely to the ‘dark side.’ I’m in the private sector but I’m still involved in science and I’m still very concerned about the public good.”

Solving Public Health Problems

In his introduction, Dean Julio Frenk said the School was fortunate to hear Chan discuss “the convergence of science, the private sector and the public good.” In public health, said Dean Frenk, the power of science is mobilized to develop solutions to health problems and public policy is utilized to make sure that those needing the solutions have access. Dean Frenk pointed to Chan’s segue from academia and public health to the private sector as showcasing the plasticity of career paths open to those seeking to best promote science and the public good.

Gökhan S. Hotamisligil, J.S. Simmons Professor of Genetics and Metabolism and chair, Department of Molecular Metabolism, joined Chan and Dean Frenk in discussion with the audience. Hotamisligil agreed that Chan’s message is important for the HSPH community. “We don’t often get to hear this perspective from the private sector. The commercialization of products is simply not part of our thinking,” he said. Hotamisligil echoed Chan’s sentiment that the School is a wonderful place of discovery, producing tools that will have the biggest impact on the lives of people.

After receiving BS and MS degrees in engineering from UCLA, Chan went on to earn a Master of Science degree in medical radiological physics and a ScD degree in radiation biology from HSPH. Instead of following a more traditional public health track, Chan then co-founded Morningside, which has a global range of investments in media, life sciences, and education and a strong commitment to social responsibility through philanthropic contributions and support of scientific research.

Chan described the slow, under-funded process of bringing promising research from academia to the marketplace. “Making drugs is as much an art as a science,” he said. “It’s a long process and highly risky.” Chan highlighted the importance of pairing private capital with astute scientific acumen. Noting that science is a wonderful tool of impact, Chan emphasized that scientists practicing within the private sector enable delivery of the scientific benefit to the public domain.

Chan said his firm has invested in a number of early-stage discoveries that have paid off both in economic terms and by delivering the great promise of academic discoveries to the healthcare sector. The investments range from spider silk – now used to surgically repair torn ligaments and as an injectable anti-aging skin product – to less expensive streptococcal pneumonia vaccines. “Science can really be the driver to lower the cost of health care and make access to healthcare available to a wider population in the world,” Chan emphasized. “And that is the public good that we are all thinking about.”

From the Gene to the Globe

Chan said he is grateful to HSPH for preparing him for his career. The School offers a wonderful mix of science, education, and policy. “Students here are exposed to any problem – not only in a myopic, narrow way, but they see the problem from the gene to the globe, from the molecular level to the population level,” Chan said. “To this day I’m very grateful for the exposure that I received here.”

Asked what advice he has for current HSPH students, Chan urged them to learn about disciplines outside their specialties by attending lectures, including in the humanities and social sciences. “I was a seminar junkie. Make use of that Harvard ID and go and listen to all these great minds,” he said.

Click here to view a webcast of Gerald Chan’s talk, which includes his discussion of the history of the commercialization of scientific discoveries and his comments on why the movement of new drugs and discoveries to market is so slow.

Marge Dwyer