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I Dream of Genes

Meet a man with the courage to see human genetics as the business opportunity it is.
February 1, 2003
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/58834

If you've ever wondered whether you have an entrepreneurial gene in your body, you may soon find out. J. Craig Venter is a scientist-and an entrepreneur. He started Celera Genomics Group in 1998 with one main mission: to map the human genome. Now he's working out of a nonprofit organization he founded in Rockville, Maryland: the Center for the Advancement of Genomics. His goal is to mass-produce CDs with everybody's personal genetic maps, and sell them for $1,000 each. Who cares? Presumably people who want to see what life-threatening genes are lurking in their bodies. Venter's organization will work on producing a gene CD for you now-if you have half a million dollars lying around. Some critics have sniffed that science shouldn't be so commercialized. We caught up with Venter to get his reaction.

I read an article stating everybody's personal genome code should be available for free. What's wrong with that thinking?

J. Craig Venter: That's one of the silliest things I've ever heard. I would like everything in life to be free. I would like gasoline to be free. In fact, I'd like people to just deliver it right to my house; it's a pain to go to the gas station. I don't even understand that [logic]. If somebody can determine their own genetic code-that only happens because of scientific breakthroughs. All these things cost huge amounts of money. Somebody has to pay for it.

OK, so assuming business is good for science, how can entrepreneurs be more involved?

Venter: The reason scientists are able to make breakthroughs is because of people who have made money in their businesses and want to use that to help society. And the intentions of the people involved don't really matter. You can have pure, altruistic intentions in just wanting to help society by creating new treatments for disease, or you can be motivated by pure financial greed. But the investment cycle in the U.S. encourages people to participate regardless of their background or what they're bringing to the table.

And when do business and science not work well together?

Venter: They collide when people let the pursuit of money overrule their ethical decisions. And it doesn't just happen with science and business. I've seen more greed in the academic community than in the business community. It depends on people's individual ethics. There have been cases of [unethical behavior] with clinical trials of drugs, for example, or scientists diverting their government-funding research lab into private companies. And, of course, we've seen businessmen having their companies buy them airplanes and large homes. I've seen people in business acting with better altruistic motives than many scientists, and I've seen many in academia who pursue things out of financial greed. The motives don't go with one category or the other.