Biotech and academic leader selected as CEO for Gates Foundation

Susan Desmond-Hellmann
Susan Desmond-Hellman
Susan Desmond-Hellman

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced today that it has selected Susan Desmond-Hellman, currently chancellor of the University of California San Francisco, to serve as chief executive officer after Jeff Raikes – the former Microsoft exec who announced in September he’d be stepping down after five years of service.

“We chose Sue because of her scientific knowledge and deep technical expertise on the foundation’s issues, as well as the organizational and leadership skills required to lead a large, growing and dynamic global organization. Sue shares our commitment and passion to create a more equitable world,” said Melinda Gates, co-chair of the foundation.

Desmond-Hellman, a physician and oncologist, will take the helm of the world’s largest philanthropy May 1, 2014. She will be the first non-Microsoft executive to serve as CEO for the Gates Foundation, which before Raikes was run by Patty Stonesifer.

Prior to becoming UCSF’s first woman chancellor in 2009, Desmond-Hellman worked in the biotechnology industry. As head of product development at Genentech, she is credited with the leading the R&D effort for two novel anti-cancer drugs, Avastin and Herceptin, which are genetically modified immune cells known as monoclonal antibodies.

Early in her career at UCSF, Desmond-Hellman studied cancers related to HIV infection such as Kaposi’s sarcoma. The Rockefeller Foundation convinced Desmond-Hellman and her husband, an infectious disease expert, to move to Uganda for two years to study HIV transmission. Upon returning to the US, as she told Nature, she decided to switch from a clinical practice to basic research aimed at discovering new treatments:

“I loved my patients but did not enjoy private practice. I thought it was the wrong job for me. We needed better weapons against cancer and I wanted to be a part of that.”

Desmond-Hellman will inherit a different organization than did Raikes when he took over at the Gates Foundation in 2008. The philanthropy, with a $40 billion endowment, is much larger with something like 1,200 employees and, arguably, a more sophisticated approach to tackling the problems it has targeted for improving in matters of global health, poverty, educational reform and inequity.

The global health program at the foundation, which had previously been the largest flagship program there, has been narrowed in scope under former pharmaceutical executive Trevor Mendel to focus mostly on research and development. The Gates’ development program, under former PATH chief Chris Elias, has become the new big gun there by incorporating the philanthropy’s health delivery or disease prevention initiatives into its broader strategy aimed at targeting key drivers of poverty such as disease, low agricultural productivity or lack of access to markets.

As one of the world’s most highly influential – maybe most influential – philanthropies, the Gates Foundation often  also gets special scrutiny and criticism. It is arguably more transparent and open than many other non-profit organizations and philanthropies, yet because of its size and influence is also often criticized for its lack of transparency and poor communication with outsiders. Raikes has acknowledged a need to improve on this score.

Desmond-Hellman may also inherit a re-emergent controversy about the Gates Foundation’s investments. A recent Mother Jones article, entitled “The Gates Foundation’s Hypocritical Investments,” has been enlivening the blogosphere the last few weeks. It is basically a re-hash of the point made in an extensive series done in 2007 by the Los Angeles Times – which is that the Gates Foundation invests its endowment in corporations that some contend run counter to the stated humanitarian goals of the philanthropy.

It’s not a new complaint, says Gates Foundation spokesman Chris Williams, but also not unique or necessarily so easily resolved:

“The perceived conflict between the strategy to maximize social impact through the foundation’s programmatic work and the strategy to maximize financial return for the foundation asset trust, which funds the work, is by no means unique to the Gates Foundation,” Williams said. “It is a challenge faced by many large foundations and other institutions that maintain endowments.”

The Gates Foundation tries to strike the right balance between investing to maximize its philanthropic war chest and not compromising on its principles, Williams said, which is why they don’t invest in tobacco, for example.

Desmond-Hellman has had to deal with this dilemma already. As the New York Times reported in 2010, when she took over as chancellor at UCSF it was learned she and her husband held something like $100,000 to $1 million in tobacco stocks (which nobody noticed, apparently, while she was devoted to fighting cancer at Genentech). Once this became public, Desmond-Hellman sold the stocks and ordered her investment manager to avoid shares in tobacco, alcohol and firearms.

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.