BAR HARBOR, Maine — Edison Liu says he more or less expected it.
He knew he was taking on a lot when he became president and CEO of The Jackson Laboratory in January 2012. Transitioning to Maine from his job in Asia as executive director of the Genome Institute of Singapore would not be a quick or easy task, he thought.
Liu’s prediction has proven accurate, but to an extent he did not quite anticipate, the CEO said last week. Already he is on pace, in short order, to log more air travel miles than his predecessor, lab officials have said.
When asked whether he gets any down time away from his myriad responsibilities at the 84-year-old nonprofit biomedical research organization, Liu shrugged and sighed. He’s been a little surprised by “how unbelievably complicated” his job is, he said. The lab’s rate of expansion in multiple venues and its growing global profile means he doesn’t get much rest, he said.
“I knew it was complex but I did not know how complex it was,” said Liu, 61, while sitting in a cushioned chair in his office overlooking the lab’s landscaped Bar Harbor campus. “It’s a good challenge, but a challenge nonetheless.”
Liu, who prior to working in Singapore served as scientific director of the National Cancer Institute’s Division of Clinical Sciences in Bethesda, Md., has taken the reins at Jackson Lab at a time when it is going through an unprecedented period of expansion, most of which is occurring outside Maine. Jackson Lab, which studies human disease and medical conditions and breeds mice for biomedical research, employs nearly 1,500 people in three states and expects to create and fill hundreds of new positions in the next several years through its expansion projects.
Away from its 98-acre campus in Bar Harbor, where more than 1,200 people work, Jackson Lab is pursuing major, multimillion-dollar expansions in Sacramento, Calif., where it has had a West Coast branch for a decade, and in Farmington, Conn., in suburban Hartford, where it is partnering with the University of Connecticut to build a new facility dedicated to human genetics and personalized medical treatment research.
In addition, in the past couple of years the lab has purchased a former home improvement retail supply store in Ellsworth, 18 miles from Bar Harbor, where it hopes eventually to expand its mouse breeding operations; and it has become a partner in the New York Genome Center, though it does not maintain a physical presence at the center’s New York City location.
Jackson Lab officials have cited multiple reasons why they have decided to expand away from Bar Harbor, where the campus is bordered on three sides by Acadia National Park. Having a presence in Ellsworth would shorten the commute for hundreds of the lab’s Bar Harbor employees who live off Mount Desert Island, they have said, while opening satellite facilities out of state provides the lab with collaborative funding opportunities that do not exist in Maine.
For Liu, these initiatives reflect changes in the international biomedical research field, where scientific data is increasing exponentially and where cross-institutional collaboration is becoming more common. Extending the lab’s presence outside of Maine will help strengthen its worldwide reach and protect its long-term viability, he said.
“It’s a global operation at this point,” Liu said. “This is what science is doing. You don’t do it in isolation anymore. You can be isolated physically, but you’re connected on a global basis.”
The lab’s facility in Sacramento — its first expansion project outside of Bar Harbor — was established a decade ago with the University of California at Davis as a way to improve the lab’s research mouse distribution network on the West Coast, he said. Initially it was not a research-oriented operation, but it has become one as officials at UC Davis, which has a clinical medical school, pushed for a more direct approach to translate academic biomedical research into clinical applications.
“That intersection with [research and] biotechnology gave our senior leadership a taste that our science could have a direct human impact,” Liu said.
So in pursuing a similar collaboration on the East Coast — first in Florida and then, when that proposal failed, in Connecticut — Jackson Lab was looking for a partner that had both an academic and clinical presence in an area with a population base adequate for supporting clinical trials, he said. Finding a partner with access to state government funding that could significantly cover the capital costs of the project was a critical component, he added.
“The expansion [plans] came out of this thinking that it would be more efficient for us to have that kind of clinical impact in an area where clinical practice is really concentrated,” Liu said. “The ideal circumstances came about in Connecticut.”
He added that the Connecticut project, unlike Sacramento, will not include any expansion of the lab’s mouse reproduction capacity. Operations there will be limited to human genetic research, he said.
Construction on the $291 million facility in Farmington began this past winter and is on schedule to be completed in the fall of 2014, according to Liu. He said he has spent many hours in the past year driving back and forth between the two New England states.
As it positions itself for having a more immediate impact on clinical patients, the lab is looking more overseas in finding customers for its mouse production division, Liu added.
Jackson Lab has established channels for selling mice in Europe and Japan, he said, but the two fastest growing markets for biomedical research are in Brazil and China, each of which have multiple large cities that contribute significantly to local research and development.
“The amount of resources being put into biomedical sciences really is enormous in those two countries.”
But there are challenges to getting research mice to customers in those countries, he added. The lab is exploring ways with those potential customers to help establish reliable distribution networks that can satisfy the lab’s scientific and humane standards, he said.
“It’s a huge investment,” Liu said. “The access to experimental mice is really critical.
So, what we’re trying to do is work with them to find rational ways for us to provide that [while] at the same time making sure our p’s and q’s are actually satisfied.”
The expected expansion to Ellsworth, where Jackson Lab officials envision converting the former 140,000-square-foot Lowe’s building on Kingsland Crossing into a mouse production facility, is another measure to help protect the lab’s future viability, according to Liu. Not only would the Ellsworth site be closer to many of its employees, but it would provide the lab with continuing production capability in the event that something happens to the Bar Harbor production site, or vice versa.
Liu noted that twice the lab’s Bar Harbor campus has been significantly damaged by fire — once in the 1947 forest fire that burned much of eastern Mount Desert Island and again in a 1989 structure fire that destroyed a mouse production building and killed about 400,000 mice.
“That’s why the California branch was very important” to establishing redundancy, he said. “But now we want to have that kind of parallel capability in Ellsworth.”
Since 2002, when the lab first expanded beyond Bar Harbor, its operating revenues have more than doubled, from nearly $104 million to an anticipated total of $249 million for 2013, according to lab officials. The lab has not made Liu’s salary public.
Liu said that various projects in Sacramento, Connecticut, and even Ellsworth bode well for the lab’s historic presence in Bar Harbor, where currently it has roughly 30 job openings and where its main operations will remain. Repeating what lab officials have said for years, he said that as the lab strengthens its biomedical presence outside Maine, its presence in Bar Harbor will become more secure.
Liu compared the lab’s situation to another well-known Maine entity that, as it turns out, also has an international reputation and customer base. According to L.L. Bean’s website, the famous mail-order catalog clothing and outdoor equipment company has had a store in Tokyo since 1992.
“If L.L. Bean were confined to the Northeast, it’s not going to do [as] well,” Liu said. “We’re here to stay. We’re not about to move.”