Dr. Stephen Quake has created technology to sequence the human genome, drugs that could potentially cure cancer, and a noninvasive prenatal screening for Down syndrome and other genetic conditions.
For those and other innovations, Quake, founder of a Cambridge biotechnology firm and a professor of bioengineering at Stanford University, was named Monday as this year’s winner of a $500,000 award from the Lemelson-MIT Program, which is housed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s School of Engineering. The prize is granted to a midcareer inventor who has made breakthrough discoveries.
“It’s very humbling,” said Quake, 43. “It’s a wonderful recognition not so much of my work, but the tremendous collaborations I’ve enjoyed over my career.”
Quake has started four companies to test and commercialize his research and inventions, including Helicos Biosciences Corp. in Cambridge. Founded in 2003, the company was created around Quake’s demonstration of the first single-molecule sequencing of DNA. Helicos commercialized the process.
“At the time, it was the world’s fastest, cheapest sequencer,” Quake said. “I started looking into it because I was interested in how biology works one molecule at a time.”
Joshua Schuler, executive director of the Lemelson-MIT Program, called Quake “an inventor’s inventor. He’s creating tools he and others can use to identify and work on a multitude of problems.”
While many of his companies are based in California, where Quake lives, the inventor said he founded Helicos in Massachusetts because the money and talent for such a venture was in Cambridge. “The lead investors, the venture capitalists were all based there,” he said.
Quake, who describes himself as a physicist at heart, said his inventions have turned out to have applications to a number of broad problems, outside of the physical sciences realm.
“I’m interested in making measurements in the biological world,” he said. “Many of things I measure have applications in medicine as well.”
Quake will receive his award June 22 at EurekaFest, a conference held at MIT and the Museum of Science and hosted by the Lemelson-MIT Program. The event brings high school-aged inventors together with prizewinners for four days.
Beyond the $500,000 prize, the Lemelson-MIT program awards include a $100,000 prize for global innovation, given this year to Dr. Ashok Gadgil, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California at Berkeley for efforts blending invention and humanitarianism; and a $30,000 prize to an MIT senior or graduate student with a portfolio of innovations. That prize went to graduate student Miles Barr for his work in solar technology.
Quake said he plans to continue inventing in a variety of disciplines. “I’ve never been one to rest too long in one area,” he said. “I like keeping one foot in academia and one foot in industry.”
As for the award itself, Quake hasn’t decided exactly what he will do with the money.
“Right now,” he said, “I’m thinking of using it for the kids’ college fund.”