Executive Q&A: Dr. Stephen Prescott, Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation

An internationally recognized leader in the studies of the basic mechanisms of human disease, Dr. Stephen Prescott came to OMRF from the University of Utah, where he was a professor of internal medicine and held the H.A. & Edna Benning Presidential Endowed Chair, founded the Eccles Program in Human and Molecular Biology and Genetics, and served as the executive director of the Huntsman Cancer Institute.

At OMRF, Prescott has overseen the largest campus expansion in the foundation’s 67-year-history. The centerpiece of this growth is OMRF’s research tower. Completed in 2011, the 186,000-square-foot tower has earned gold-level LEED certification and, crowned by 18 wind turbines, is believed to house the world’s largest rooftop wind farm. To date, Prescott has raised $85 million to fund OMRF’s expansion, which includes not only the new tower but also the addition of more than a dozen new principal scientists to OMRF’s faculty. Under Prescott’s leadership, the National Institutes of Health has designated OMRF as one of only seven Autoimmunity Centers of Excellence in the U.S., and OMRF has earned seven consecutive four-star ratings—the highest possible score—from Charity Navigator, the nation’s leading nonprofit evaluator. During this time, The Scientist magazine has also named OMRF among its “Best Places to Work” in academia three years in a row.

Q. Tell us a little about the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation (OMRF).

A. The Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation is one of the oldest independent research organizations in the United States. We were founded in the late 1940s. At the time it was a brave and adventurous undertaking even for a small place in the middle of the country to start a medical research organization. We have five major programs: cardiovascular disease, heart attacks and strokes, cancer and the related immunological functions with cancer, arthritis, and various other forms of autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, sjogren’s syndrome, multiple sclerosis and others. We work in every aspect from discovery science, how do these diseases begin, how can we find better ways to diagnose them, can we find new treatments and cures for those diseases. We have two research clinics, one focused on the severe forms of arthritis and the other on multiple sclerosis and our other programs.

Q. What would you say to someone in the biotech sector considering a move to Oklahoma?

I would encourage anybody in the biotech sector or related fields to just come to Oklahoma City (where OMRF is located). You will find a welcoming environment, a lot of talented and accomplished colleagues, people looking to collaborate and work together both at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation and other organizations. The universities, other businesses, are very open minded looking to help themselves by helping you.

The costs of starting a business are very favorable compared to most other places in the country. My expertise is in biotechnology and you can get first class lab space, well equipped access to every instrument you’ll ever need here on a basis that’s better than anywhere else you can find in the country. Certainly in the very well-known corners of biotech concentration, our space costs are something like less than half, maybe a third of the costs. So it would be very favorable as far as a capital preservation strategy for a start-up to be here.

Q. How do you recruit the nation’s top scientists and researchers to Oklahoma?

A. I have spent a lot of my life recruiting people and sometimes it’s a little bit counter-intuitive. When we have an opening for a scientist, we will have hundreds of applications and you think “boy it’s a buyer’s market, I could get whoever I want.” As you get through the process, you discover that there are two or three that are your top candidates and you discover that’s who everybody else in the country wants, too. We are competing with the top universities and research institutions in the country. So we have to be competitive in what we offer. It’s more important than the salary, so we have to offer opportunity.

We also pay competitive wages at a nationally-competitive level and that is by design. Because when we pay wages that are competitive at a national level, people can live extraordinarily well in Oklahoma. I will tell an example of three scientist that we recruited in our cancer programs. They have all purchased large, beautiful homes on acreage – one of them plans to have horses. These are people that work really long hours but when they are out they want to pursue their hobbies quickly. So they can live within 15 minutes of their laboratory and have enough acreage to keep horses. There are not many leading research in the world where you can do that. Not everyone wants to ride horses, myself included, but I mean that as a metaphor. You can tailor your lifestyle to what you want.

Q. Where does OMRF look to ensure a pipeline of talent for the future?

A. OMRF is an independent research institution – we are not a part of a university, we are not a part of the state. Obviously a big piece of that has to do with colleges and universities. We have just been thrilled with the wonderful students we have encountered. We run a very competitive summer program for a dozen students who get to spend a summer doing research during their college years. These are just outstanding students.


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