When the cures come out of Dr. Sean J. Morrison’s lab—and he’s certain they will—almost no one will remember when the place used to be just a couple of empty concrete boxes.
The floors were bare. The walls were unfinished. There were no centrifuges, no dissection microscopes, no imaging flow cytometers.
But in 2011, when Morrison, as the newly minted founding director of the brand-new Children’s Medical Center Research Institute, first walked into those empty concrete boxes on the top two floors of a building at UT Southwestern in Dallas, he already knew how they would look when they were filled in. He could envision what the equipment would be and where it would go. He could picture the team of top-flight scientists working there. And he could see the treatments they’d create. Treatments that would help sick kids. Treatments that might cure rare diseases. Treatments that even held the promise of curing cancer.
To make that happen, all Morrison needed to do was, well, everything. “When they actually offered me the job in 2011, even though the groundwork for the institute itself had been laid, and the institutions behind it—Children’s Medical Center Dallas and UT Southwestern—were committed, there was nothing physically here,” the blonde-haired, 46-year-old Morrison says from his office at the institute off Harry Hines Boulevard. “We had been allocated two floors, but there was just bare floor here. And no one else worked here. It was just me.”
The opportunity to fill in the blank concrete boxes with whatever he wanted was exactly what had lured Morrison away from the founding directorship of the Center for Stem Cell Biology, which he’d held at the University of Michigan since 1999. Before the dawn of the new millennium, Morrison had already become one of the world’s top stem cell researchers. He’d made breakthrough after breakthrough, discovery after discovery, about the human body’s most crucial cells. That’s why he was the leading choice—perhaps really the only choice—to lead the new institute, for which Children’s Medical Center had pledged to spend no less than $150 million to fund through 2026. “There aren’t very many opportunities in academia to create a new institute from scratch,” Morrison says. “But here I had an opportunity to create a culture that would be optimized for discovery and innovation.”
Read those words again: “Optimized for discovery and innovation.” That sounds more like executive-speak than something you’d hear from a guy who spends his days staring into a microscope.
But, then, Morrison doesn’t run the institute, called CRI for short, like an academic institution. He runs it like a business. In many ways, CRI operates like a Silicon Valley startup. Innovation is encouraged. Failures are expected and accepted. Donors are treated less like philanthropists and more like investors, receiving regular status updates on how their money has been spent and what results have been achieved with it. Plus, those once-empty offices—which will eventually contain 15 different labs—were designed as an open-plan environment, specifically built for sharing ideas.
The staff, which will eventually number 150, has mostly been recruited from the world’s top universities. “The best of the best,” Morrison calls them, echoing any number of tech execs who say they recruit for the same type of worker. Like many of those tech execs, Morrison has lofty goals for his organization. He wants CRI to have a “transformational” impact on our understanding of human cells. In fact, he wants nothing less than for CRI to contribute to a cure for cancer.
“You don’t create a new institute to make incremental advances in treatments,” Morrison says. “You create a new institute to try to have a transformative effect. That’s why we want everybody in this new institute swinging for the fences. What’s exciting about this business, about this institute, is that we have an opportunity to change the world.”
This article appears in the April issue of D CEO, and you can read the rest of it here.