It’s about 8:45 a.m. on a recent Monday. Steven Briggs hops down the front stairs at the La Jolla-based Novartis’ Agricultural Discovery Institute Inc. to pose for a picture.
Dressed in a flannel shirt, casual slacks and sneakers, Briggs emits more of the passionate plant biologist he is than the institute’s jet-setting executive with the overbooked schedule.
One can’t help but wonder: This is the high-powered president and CEO of the Swiss pharmaceutical giant’s research division?
A quiet, career-driven intellectual, Briggs admits he breathes science 24/7 , with colleagues at work, his wife Kristen, also a scientist, and with their friends, most of whom , you guessed it, are scientists.
“My life is very simple , the laboratory, the house, the grocery store and the airport,” Briggs says.
His principal objectives in life: Happiness in his marriage and for his 8-year-old son, Harrison, and significant career achievements for Kristen and himself.
Briggs, who heads probably the area’s most promising ag-biotech research center, says he took the job because it’s the best opportunity to transform agriculture.
“Such an integrated technology platform doesn’t exist anywhere,” Briggs says.
Indeed, the $250 million 7-building center to be built by 2001, funded by the Swiss-based Novartis Research Institute, is poised to make significant contributions for agribusiness, such as identifying traits to protect crops and enriching the foods we eat through bio-engineering. Consider the clout of its collaborators: UC Berkeley, the Scripps Research Institute and the Salk Institute.
But Briggs knows while ag-biotech is a promising field, critics in Europe feel otherwise. Environmental groups there have voiced concerns that bio-engineered foods offers consumers no health benefits and may not be safe for consumption. The result has been a biotech backlash.
“The next 12 months are critical,” Briggs admits. “If the industry prevails in its war against the protesters, ag-biotech will grow in San Diego; if not, it will shrink.”
For now, Briggs remains confident it will only be a matter of time before Europeans recognize the value of bio-engineered foods.
Hearing Briggs talk, it’s hard to believe this hardcore scientist once earned such bad grades that no university wanted him.
A late bloomer, Briggs admits he didn’t care about science or education until college.
Born in Burlington, Vt., the son of an accountant and a secretary, Briggs’ early interests evolved almost entirely around sports: ice skating, snow skiing and swimming.
He graduated from Burlington High in 1971, and , given his track record , didn’t even consider college.
Instead, Briggs contemplated joining the Army at a time when the Vietnam War was raging.
“But when I interviewed, I had the feeling that this wasn’t what I was looking for.”
Suddenly, his parents’ wish for him to go to college was very appealing.
Briggs’ mother, who worked as a secretary at the University of Vermont, paved the way.
Only one program , the department of social welfare , accepted Briggs.
“That’s because they were desperate for students,” he says.
Briggs, however, wasn’t desperate enough to stay and began exploring other potential majors.
A botany professor named Hubert Vogelmann , whom Briggs still admires , brought out the scientist in Briggs.
Briggs accelerated in his studies, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in botany in 1976. He then pursued a combined master’s and doctoral degree in plant pathology at Michigan State University.
Des Moines, Iowa-based Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. recruited Briggs before he graduated in 1982. Briggs says it was a “wonderful position” he couldn’t refuse.
He remained with Pioneer for 13 years, climbing the corporate ladder from laboratory manager to director of research. He also captured the heart of a co-worker named Kristen, who had crops in her blood as the daughter of Minnesota farmers.
“I spoke with him as part of an interview process,” she remembers. “I didn’t really think he was interested in me , he was just friendly.”
That was in April 1985. Five years later, they tied the knot, marking their return to Pioneer after Briggs’ three-year stint at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, N.Y.
One year later, their son was born.
Briggs says the couple didn’t regret returning to the “sticks” from New York, adding jokingly that there was a lot of “culture” in Des Moines too , agriculture.
Des Moines also offered plenty of fun activities: Horses to ride for Kristen, a pool for little Harrison, and skydiving for Briggs.
But they’re happy in San Diego.
Kristen Briggs says since the couple moved to San Diego last year, relatives keep knocking on their door to become immersed in the Southern California lifestyle.
Briggs says he also enjoys having 30,000 researchers within a 10-mile radius here vs. 400 in Des Moines.
That’s a 75-fold increase in scientific brainpower , and in case of overheating, there’s an ocean nearby to cool down.