Institute for Protein Design wins $45M in funding from TED’s Audacious Project

Alan Boyle
University of Washington biochemists David Baker and Neil King show off molecular models of proteins at UW’s Institute for Protein Design. (UW IPD Photo / Ian Haydon)

The era of engineering proteins for medical applications just got a lot closer, thanks to a five-year, $45 million grant from The Audacious Project at TED to the Institute for Protein Design at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

The institute, headed by UW biochemist David Baker, is among eight recipients of Audacious grants announced today at the annual TED conference in Vancouver, B.C.

“We’re really thinking of this as a protein design revolution, parallel to the digital revolution at Bell Labs. … If you can design proteins exactly to order from first principles, you can solve a lot of problems that are facing humans today — primarily in medicine, but also in materials and energy,” Baker told GeekWire.

Among the potential products are a universal flu vaccine, non-addictive painkillers, smart proteins capable of identifying and treating cancer cells or the out-of-control cells that cause autoimmune disorders, potential treatments for neurodegenerative disorders and self-assembling proteins for solar cells or nanofabrication.

“They are things that we’ve been thinking about for a while, and are starting to work toward,” said Neil King, who leads the institute’s vaccine design efforts. “We’re really excited by the opportunity that’s opening up here because of this additional funding, to scale up and focus our efforts toward solving these ‘grand challenge’ problems.”

That fits right in with the mission of The Audacious Project, which was launched by TED’s organizers last year with support from The Bridgespan Group. The project pulls together philanthropic funds from a variety of contributors — including the Skoll Foundation, Virgin Unite and the Dalio Foundation — and distributes the money to boost bold ideas.

The five-year grant adds to funding that the institute receives from the likes of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. Right now, the institute has about 100 people on its staff, “and we are going to be ramping that number up considerably,” Baker said.

Baker’s reference to Bell Labs — which pioneered innovations ranging from transistors and lasers to radio astronomy and photovoltaic cells in the mid-20th century — isn’t merely a historical allusion. He sees Bell Labs as the model for what he wants to do with the Institute for Protein Design, and expects to collaborate with other research institutions in the Seattle area and around the world.

“We want to build dream teams for all of these areas,” Baker said. “Coming back to the Bell Labs analogy, an important part of this is recruiting. We’re really excited about attracting people at all levels, ranging from visiting students to graduate students to postdoctoral fellows to people later in their careers to faculty.”

One of the priorities will be to upgrade the institute’s Rosetta protein design software, which has spawned a citizen-science program called Rosetta at Home as well as a protein-folding video game called Foldit.

“We’re incredibly indebted to the Rosetta at Home participants who have really contributed a huge amount to our efforts through the donation of spare cycles on their computers,” Baker said. “In fact, we will be even more dependent on them as we scale up and have more designs to test.”

The extra funding should raise the game to another level for Foldit’s puzzle-solving players, who are already designing virtual proteins from scratch. Baker and King say they’ll be raising their game as well.

“We’re looking at this as a catalytic event,” King said. “This influx of resources and talent … is going to take us up a level, but it’s not a perpetual funding source. Once we take that step or two up, we’ll have to continue to attract traditional funding, or maybe alternative forms of funding, to keep things going at that higher level.”

So when will The Audacious Project’s initial $45 million bet pay off? How long will it be before the institute has a universal flu vaccine ready for testing?

“I think single-digit years,” King said. “Not double-digit years.”

This year’s eight Audacious projects were chosen from more than 1,500 applications. “The total cost of all eight projects, were we to execute them all, is more than half a billion dollars over the next five years,” said Chris Anderson, curator of TED Conferences. The other seven 2019 Audacious projects include:

  • Center for Policing Equity, which plans to use data capture technology to bring measurable behavior changes to police departments that collectively serve 100 million people a year — about one in three Americans — by 2024.
  • Educate Girls, which is partnering with 35,000 village-based volunteers to address collective mindsets and persuade parents and elders in remote, rural communities of India to register all out-of-school girls for school and support them so that they stay enrolled.
  • The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, which aims to optimize the ability of plants to capture and store carbon in their roots in a long-lived molecule called suberin — better known as cork.
  • The END Fund, which proposes to bring deworming treatment to 100 million people and support partnerships to increase access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene education.
  • The Nature Conservancy, which intends to protect 4 million square kilometers of the ocean over the next five years by buying up the of debt of 20 island and coastal nations — in exchange for governmental commitments to use the savings to protect at least 30% of their marine areas.
  • Thorn, which seeks to eliminate child sexual abuse material from the internet by empowering those on the front lines with the technology and data they need to find children faster, and end the circulation of violent abuse content before it starts.
  • Waterford UPSTART, which hopes to provide access to early education to 250,000 children across the country. Waterford UPSTART empowers parents through proactive family coaching and provides personalized learning for every child, preparing them for kindergarten.

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