(Ann Jeffrey photo)
'. . . fatiguing and inspiring all at the same time . . .'
Work on the BP proposal was fueled by Berkeley's scientific and technical expertise, a large number of take-out sandwiches, and just enough printer toner
| 08 February 2007
How did Berkeley and its partner institutions - Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign - manage to craft the winning proposal for the Energy Biosciences Institute? A number of key players, though still a bit stunned by the good news, are coherent enough to recount, in bits and pieces, how it all came together in record time.
A date that figures large in their collective memory is Monday, Oct. 16, when the energy giant BP issued a formal request-for-proposals (RFP) for an ambitious new biofuels-research institute. Five academic institutions in the United States and England were invited to deliver to BP's Houston offices within six weeks - a time window as narrow as a blade of switchgrass - "one (1) signed original" of their proposal, along with "two (2) copies and one (1) electronic copy.. individually packaged and sealed."
Campus leaders knew from the outset that they faced strong competition - from UC San Diego, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and two British institutions, Imperial College London and Cambridge University. One arrow in Berkeley's quiver, they figured, was the California Institute for Quantitative Biomedical Research (QB3), which a few years earlier had the foresight to develop an infrastructure - contracts-and-grants staff, an editor, and administrative support - for putting together large, multidisciplinary, multi-institutional grant proposals. After learning over the summer of the competition that BP was contemplating, Chancellor Birgeneau asked QB3 to help spearhead Berkeley's entry in the high-stakes competition, and a team of 20 to 30 administrators and scientists from Berkeley and LBNL - led by Vice Chancellor for Research Beth Burnside and LBNL Director Steve Chu - began meeting in August in Hildebrand Hall each Thursday at 8 a.m.
Sharing the load
"We knew that once the RFP was issued, we needed to hit the ground running," recalls Diane Leite, deputy director of QB3. She'd been on vacation when she got a Sunday phone call, in August, from Graham Fleming, who leads QB3's Berkeley component, asking her to coordinate the BP proposal effort. Though "fuzzy" on the details at that point, Leite recalls, "I knew it was big and would be a lot of work."
How much work began to come into focus once BP issued its 29-page RFP. As with many such projects, "the science was extremely important," Leite recounts - "but equally so was organizational structure and governance." The RFP was unusually open-ended, offering "questions for consideration" on virtually every issue touched upon, from staffing to legal structure, governance, and oversight.
"That was very smart of them," remarks Carol Mimura, assistant vice chancellor for intellectual property and industry-research alliances, who was tasked with grappling with the proposal's IP issues. "It was more difficult to respond than if they had provided more guidance." Rather than "parroting back BP's policy," the competitors were "asked to envision an entirely new bioscience institute." The message, she says, was "'Help us invent the future.'"
Major players from the campus and LBNL agreed to take on pieces of the monumental project - and everyone came through on their commitments, marvels Assistant Vice Chancellor for Research Ann Jeffrey. From past experience, QB3 in particular had learned that busy scientists "need us to take as much off of their shoulders as we can, and let them focus on the science," says Leite. That lesson learned, Chu and Jay Keasling, professor of chemical engineering and bioengineering, focused on the science writing; meanwhile, non-scientists tackled intellectual property, governance structure, and interactions with state-government officials. And, as the deadline approached, key players held numerous, after-hours work sessions over take-out meals.
"I'd say the biggest single challenge was finding a mutually acceptable sandwich shop that we could order out from on Sunday," Jeffrey jokes. By the end, she says, "I was ready to give up take-out sandwiches for life!"
Thanksgiving Day preparations got short shrift in several homes as team members worked feverishly to tweak language and send their versions to University Relations' development-communications unit for final editorial work and visually beautiful design in time for the Nov. 27 deadline.
"It was astonishing what they were able to accomplish," Leite says of the DevCom team, especially given the volume of edit changes bombarding them from all directions. "People were really actively inventing the EBI on the run," says Craig Buckwald, a DevCom principal editor. "I'm really familiar with how well my own group works together," but the amount of "calm, positive" collaboration, campus-wide and beyond, "surprised even me," he says. "It was fatiguing and inspiring all at the same time."
Showtime in London
Within days, the Berkeley-LBNL-University of Illinois team flew to England to present its proposal to BP brass. In preparation, the group had a planning meeting on Saturday, over dinner at a London pub, and spent Sunday practicing and tweaking each piece of the complex presentation.
The final push lasted almost until dawn - as Leite, Jeffrey, and Keasling cranked out final copies of presentation materials (on 8 1/2 x 11-inch paper they'd had the foresight to pack, thanks to a tip from Fleming, a native Brit, who knew that European-made paper would not fit the handsome presentation folders they'd brought from home). "We were printing away through the night to get a minimum of 12 copies of the handouts," Jeffrey recalls. Despite a finicky printer, "we managed to squeeze out exactly 12 copies, at which point we completely ran out of toner. The presentation gods were with us that night - but only just."
Two hours later, the team began its tag-team presentation in the hotel boardroom. In their remarks, both Chu and Birgeneau spoke of team-oriented, mission-driven science, which in their experience can generate stellar basic research and then translate that knowledge to the marketplace, Mimura recalls. "The problem of how you fund translational research, the gap between the bench and bedside - or in this case between the bench and alternative fuels - is absolutely not trivial." Both leaders, as well as UIUC Chancellor Richard Herman, were on hand the entire time, she says. "Often people at that level present and then go home. But all three stayed, and also helped strategize the day and night before we presented." That demonstration of commitment "made a difference" in the end, she's convinced.
That evening, all Bears still standing enjoyed a pub-crawl around Mayfair, with Fleming as tour guide. "The pubs are as good as I remembered," he says, recalling his days as student more than 30 years ago.
'Once in a lifetime'
BP had informed the team in London that the finalists would be contacted in mid-January, with a final decision set for the end of that month. Several tense weeks followed for the Berkeley team waiting in California for BP's decision. To lessen anxiety, "you make up stories in your head as to why you haven't heard anything," Leite says. "The hardest thing was to dismiss rumors that popped up everywhere, both for and against our chances."
Then, on Jan. 22, the energy company called to "clarify" a few remaining issues. Things were looking extremely good. "The chancellor, Graham Fleming, Ann Jeffrey, and I were in the chancellor's office for the call," recalls Leite. "When we hung up, we all just looked at each other and exchanged high fives." Two days later, BP representatives came to campus with a few remaining questions, informed the Berkeley-LBNL group that they'd won the competition, and set the date for the formal announcement the next week. "Jay called this 'a once-in-a-lifetime experience,'" Leite recalls. "'What do we do after this?!'"
Get the Energy Biosciences Institute off the ground, of course.
Mimura is already working to finalize the contracts, so that EBI research can launch on schedule, in June. "We know the competition was stiff," she says. "We're really flattered, really grateful, that BP has confidence in us. Now it's up to us to deliver."