It’s no secret that San Antonio is home to a primate research facility, a maximum containment lab, and strong graduate biomedical science programs. Why the rest of the world might not have fully appreciated that fact back in 2008, when Kenneth Trevett came to San Antonio, wasn’t exactly idiopathic – the scientific term for unknown origin.
“My feeling was that San Antonio really needed to reach out and beat its own drum more than it had as far as biomedical research, clinical care, and education (goes). I thought I could play a role in that,” Trevett said. “I think that’s important no matter how good you are because if people don’t know about you, you have a problem in funding and recruiting.”
Trevett, recruited from California to serve as president and CEO of the Texas Biomedical Research Institute here, announced his resignation as chairman of the board at BioMed SA last week. He has served the economic and promotional arm of San Antonio’s health care and bioscience sector, the city’s largest at $37 billion generated annually, since 2010.
In his remarks to the group at a meeting, Trevett said he hoped he has helped make a difference in health care. “This has become even more important to me as a user of clinical services here, first for my wife whose care at the START Center extended her life with innovative new approaches to her cancer.
“And now, for me as I have just received a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. I have every confidence that my care at the Health Science Center will be as innovative and effective as is possible.”
A native of Boston, Trevett’s path diverged from his father’s and grandfather’s, both physicians, when he decided to go to law school. He ran for state office early in his career, which sparked his interest in public policy. And though he lost, that would not be the end of his path in advocacy and policymaking, or in the biomedical sciences for that matter.
Trevett worked as general counsel at a lab in Maine and another in Boston before taking over as chief operating officer at a vision research institute in 1996. Five years later, he was offered the job as president of what came to be known as the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute in California after he lobbied for a name change.
He would do the same shortly after arriving in San Antonio in 2008.
“When I came to the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research, the former name of Texas BioMed, there was a lot of confusion between that name and the Southwest Research Institute, which was founded by the same guy,” Trevett said. “So we changed it in 2011. It took a lot of time persuading people about the need for it, but I think it has been a successful move.”
But his contributions to the biomedical sector in San Antonio would extend far beyond signage and letterheads.
At Texas BioMed, he recruited five new faculty members for three departments, and built 70,000 sq. ft. of new research and support space. He was also instrumental in launching the Vaccine Development Center of San Antonio in 2012 as a shared program between the University of Texas at San Antonio, UT Health San Antonio, the Southwest Research Institute, and Texas BioMed.
“There are programmatic values to (the Vaccine Center), but it also serves as a paradigm for what can happen when organizations do collaborate,” he said. “So I am proud of that.”
As chairman of BioMed SA, Trevett worked tirelessly to increase marketing efforts for the biomedical sector and raise the necessary funds to market San Antonio as a biomedical center the way cities like Los Angeles, Boston, San Diego, and the research triangle in North Carolina have done. Newer on the horizon are Cleveland and Birmingham, cities now dedicating more resources and support to research and clinical care.
“(BioMed SA) needs more money to do what’s expected of it,” Trevett said. “It’s a cruel dilemma. Ann (Stevens) is an extremely effective executive. She does more and more. But when BioMed SA was formed 11 years ago, it was primarily to market the biomedical assets of the city. It has since become a key player in recruiting conferences to the city. It has become a broker to introduce parties who should know about each other, and I think that’s an important role.”
In 2014, the organization recruited the World Stem Cell Summit to San Antonio, a move that promoted the quality and extent of scientific research being done here, Trevett said. And yet there’s more work to be done.
“I was hoping during my tenure we would double the budget, but we’ve basically remained flat,” he said. In recent years, BioMed SA lost $100,000 in funding from Bexar County and $60,000 from another organization. Trevett changed the status of the organization to a nonprofit. “We had to make up for those losses, so staying flat was a victory,” he said. “But we need to do more.”
Calling the lack of resources his greatest challenge as chair, Trevett feels BioMed SA needs not only a bigger marketing budget, but a travel budget as well.
His solution to this funding need? The kind of collaboration between organizations that would allow for more efficient use of resources as well as an incubator facility so that startup biomedical researchers could share equipment.
Now that Trevett is stepping down, that would be an appropriate legacy, one that reflects his leadership style and vision.
“Ken was a great consensus builder at a transitional time for BioMed SA when everyone getting on the team was critical to its continued success,” said Jim Reed, president of the San Antonio Medical Foundation.
Walt Downing, executive vice president at Southwest Research, will take the reins at BioMedSA, where he’s been serving as vice chair. “I personally have a lot of respect for him,” Trevett said. “He’s a very thoughtful, open-minded listener and I think he keeps his hand on the steering wheel very effectively.”
Trevett, 69, plans to continue in his part-time role as executive director of the Vaccine Center and his service on the boards of BioBridge Global and Texas Research & Technology Fund. He also hopes to travel more, first to Israel and then Europe. “I want to make hay while the sun shines,” he said.
His Parkinson’s diagnosis came only recently, though he’s suffered symptoms for some time. Parkinson’s is a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects movement. Though it’s too early to know whether he could benefit from clinical trials, he said he would be happy to consider it.
“My wife, who passed away of ovarian cancer in 2013, was a strong believer in clinical research and participated in several trials,” Trevett said. “Some were of value to her and others weren’t.
“She participated because she wanted to live, but also to make contributions to the body of science that will turn around a tough disease.”