Geneticist Craig Venter sells his La Jolla research center to UC San Diego for $25 million

Craig Venter shows some of his favorite motorcycles in 2016.
Craig Venter shows some of his favorite motorcycles in 2016.

Craig Venter, the maverick biologist who helped revolutionize science through his role in sequencing the human genome, has sold the biomedical research center he built in La Jolla to UC San Diego, his alma mater.

Venter, 75, told The San Diego Union-Tribune that UCSD paid $25 million for the building — off Torrey Pines Road south of the university — which will expand the school’s already huge effort to find ways to prevent, diagnose and treat disease, especially those arising from bad genes.

The university confirmed the deal and said it is exploring absorbing most of the J. Craig Venter Institute faculty, which includes prominent figures such as Richard Scheuermann, who is tracking how the COVID-19 coronavirus mutates.

It’s also likely that the faculty’s research grants, which Venter said amount to about $30 million this year, will eventually revert to the university.

UCSD said in a statement that it will name the building after Venter “to honor his work and legacy. JCVI will occupy the building rent-free for five years, at which point UC San Diego will take over the building.”

Venter will not become a full member of the university’s faculty but will continue to lead a separate, nonprofit science group also known as the J. Craig Venter Institute. Its interests include creating artificial cells that produce everything from fuels to drugs.

“I have always wanted the institute to become more a part of UCSD,” said Venter, who earned a bachelor’s degree and doctorate there in the 1970s. “It’s the only institution I’ve encountered that is truly multidisciplinary. Scientists from different departments really work together, which makes science go faster. It makes things more interesting intellectually.”

Venter, who recently recovered from a case of COVID-19, also said he sold the institute because he had grown tired of some of the management responsibilities that go with the job.

The sale drew praise from industry analysts.

“This is a good fit for UCSD,” said medical oncologist Ivor Royston, who co-founded San Diego’s first biotech company, Hybritech, in the ‘70s. “It will bring significant assets to the university, enhancing its strong genomics program.”

The deal also made sense to Joe Panetta, president of the life science trade group Biocom California.

“It’s a very difficult environment for private research institutes,” Panetta said. “They have to compete for NIH [National Institutes of Health] funding, which has not increased to the extent it needs to.

“Getting corporate money also can be hard. A lot of companies have been holding onto their money because of the pandemic, inflation and the war in Ukraine.”

The laboratory complex in La Jolla has been known as the J. Craig Venter Institute since it opened near the western edge of the UCSD campus in 2012. The university’s decision to keep the name reflects the marquee value of Venter, a blunt, independent, hyper-competitive biologist and entrepreneur.

In the 1990s, he led Maryland’s Celera Genomics in a private effort to sequence the human genome, which is called the “book of life” because it is the key to understanding disease.

Venter developed a faster, cheaper way to map genes, which compelled the public Human Genome Project to speed up its own sequencing efforts.

The competition essentially ended in a tie in 2000, when the public and private teams published their first drafts of the genome at the same moment.

The genome has since been fully sequenced. The work has led to many things, including prenatal screening for many diseases and the rapid over-the-counter coronavirus test developed by San Diego’s Quidel Corp.

Venter’s contributions to the field earned him the National Medal of Science, the country’s highest science award.

Much of his career played out in Maryland. But he later shifted operations to La Jolla, where his comparatively small, private institute has been trying to survive amid the fierce competition for limited NIH funding.

Venter’s center also has been pinched financially because, unlike the nearby Salk Institute for Biological Studies, it does not have a big, broad-based philanthropy program.

JCVI has been living in the shadow of UCSD, which pulls in more than $1.5 billion in grants a year and is near the end of a decade-long fundraising campaign that could hit the $3 billion mark by summer.

“The money we’re getting from UCSD isn’t charity,” Venter said. “This is a win-win all the way around. It will make our faculty better able to compete for grants and give them access to the university’s supercomputer center. “

Craig Venter, pictured in 2015, says he doesn't plan to retire.
Craig Venter, pictured in 2015, says he doesn’t plan to retire. “I believe in a saying that you see posted a lot on Twitter: ‘If you want immortality, do something meaningful with your life.’”

He’s adamant that the sale doesn’t represent his swan song.

“I will never retire,” he said. “I believe in a saying that you see posted a lot on Twitter: ‘If you want immortality, do something meaningful with your life.’”

He’s aware of how genetics can affect a person’s health. Venter underwent surgery in 2016 after genetic testing helped reveal that he had high-grade prostate cancer. The problem wasn’t picked up during PSA testing.

He also often refers to what happen to his father, John.

“He died at 59 from sudden cardiac arrest,” Venter said. “So I’ve always had that hanging over my head, as does anybody who has parents that die at young age.”

Venter splits time among homes in La Jolla, Borrego Springs and two small towns in Maine — Camden and Islesboro — where he indulges his longtime passion for sailing.

He’s also consumed by flying, having earned his pilot’s license during the pandemic.

“It’s the ultimate freedom,” Venter said. “I can get in my plane and fly anywhere I want to go without asking permission. I can get to my ranch in Borrego Springs in 19 minutes. The views are spectacular.”

— La Jolla Light staff contributed to this report.