Alan Fein was already playing a key role in Kendall Square as executive vice president of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, the renowned genomics research center, before taking over as president of the Kendall Square Association. He has succeeded Tim Rowe, chief executive of the Cambridge Innovation Center, who founded the group and turned it into an influential voice in the tech hub around the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Globe reporter Michael B. Farrell recently spoke with Fein about his ongoing role at the Broad, the issues he’ll tackle as head of the Kendall Square Association, and his part in the fight against AIDS. Here’s what he found out:
1Fein, 61, isn’t a scientist. Still, he helps lead one of the most prestigious human genomics research centers in the world. But he is rooted in academics. His father was a Harvard professor of the economics of health care and his mother a Civil War historian. And he’s spent most of his life in and around universities.
“I don’t have any formal science background. What I’ve learned, I’ve learned on the job. But [the Broad] is an academic community, and that is my background. I know how these guys think. I know what motivates them. I know how they view the world.”
2In the late 1980s, he helped start the Harvard AIDS Initiative, now called the Harvard School of Public Health AIDS Initiative, as the fight against the epidemic was becoming highly politicized. At the time, people infected with HIV weren’t permitted to enter the country — a position the institute fought hard to overturn.
“There was this prospect that you could change the world. You could make a difference or do something. You could use a big institution like Harvard as an instrument to do that.”
3Fein played multiple administrative rolls at Harvard through the years. He was publisher of Harvard Magazine, a senior budget analyst, and an associate director of the Arnold Arboretum. One of his biggest accomplishments was helping to develop guidelines so that Harvard could divest from stock ownership in corporations that didn’t align with its social and ethical principles.
“I was really attracted by the idea of doing good in the world by leveraging these big. traditional-seeming institutions that have sway.”
4The Broad Institute might have had a Los Angeles address. The philanthropist who initially funded it, Eli Broad, lives in LA and originally wanted to set up the center alongside California’s big academic research institutions. Fein was among those who helped convince him otherwise.
“Distance matters. Being directly across the river from Harvard Medical School. Being in the same town as Harvard University and MIT. Being directly across the river from Mass. General. There’s nothing in LA that could have replaced that.”
5Fein believes that kind of proximity matters when it comes to stirring more innovation in Cambridge. And, he said, that’s what makes Kendall Square such a unique place. Now, as head of the Kendall Square Association, he plans on doing more to forge relationships between the area’s tech residents such as Google or Genzyme.
“Collaboration enhances innovation. One of the elements of sustaining this innovation hub is to create more collaboration within the hub. Kendall Square has this unique opportunity. Unlike some hubs that are focused on one industry, we have experts in information technology and biotechnology. There’s a huge intersection between the two.”
6He has become an expert on the Red Line and plans on using his position as head of the Kendall Square Association to improve T service. Having better public transit is key to sustaining its growth, he said.
“I know way more about this than I did before. If you try to go home on the Red Line at rush hour, you wait three to four trains before you can get on. And when you get on, you are packed like sardines. That’s before all of this growth happens. We are looking at a much worse situation over the next five years.”
7Fein lives in Porter Square with his wife, Ellen Kolton. They have two college-age children. He grew up in Newton and spent many summer months during his youth at Lake George in the Adirondacks, where he picked up competitive water skiing.
“I was pretty good. But there were a lot of people who were better.”