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PALO ALTO, Calif. — Stanford University prides itself on its many partnerships with its neighboring tech giants. Its researchers have helped Alphabet’s life sciences unit Verily assess what it means to be healthy, and they’ve evaluated the Apple Watch’s ability to detect heart rhythm changes.
But Stanford’s collaborative spirit can come with a cost — when medical researchers decide they like working with industry so much that they jump ship to go work for industry.
A few high-profile moves: Dr. Sumbul Desai and Dr. Lauren Cheung, who helped launch an institute at Stanford meant to help companies develop digital health tools, both decamped for Apple in 2017. Dr. Rajiv Kumar, who as a Stanford pediatric endocrinologist used Apple software to develop a diabetes monitoring tool, joined the company in 2016. And cardiovascular medicine specialist Dr. Mike McConnell left his full-time gig at Stanford in 2015 to head up Verily’s work on heart health.
Should Stanford be worried? Dr. Lloyd Minor, the dean of the medical school there, said he’s not sweating the departures.
“For a person in a job like mine, the only thing worse than having people want to hire your faculty is having no one wanting to hire your faculty,” Minor said.
Of course, ambitious medical researchers have long left academia in pursuit of new opportunities at drug companies, startups, or venture capital firms. And Big Tech companies have been looking to universities for years to poach top computer scientists and artificial intelligence researchers.
And it’s not just Stanford that’s losing talent to Big Tech. Dr. Maulik Majmudar, a top cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, last summer jumped ship to Amazon. And Dr. Jessica Mega, a Harvard cardiologist widely seen as a rising star, made the move to Verily in 2015.
Still, the challenge of retaining star academics is amplified at Stanford, where Big Tech companies are just a short drive away and can offer hard-to-turn-down pay packages in a region with the nation’s highest monthly average housing costs.
Stanford is trying to combat brain drain. It has a leave policy to allow researchers to return after some time away, depending on where they are in their career. It recently opened a new faculty housing community, with more units on the way, though it is in a dispute with its home county over whether it’s providing enough affordable housing.
And then, of course, there are the one-on-one conversations that officials like Minor have with faculty to try to convince them to stay at Stanford.
“We try to, in our discussions with faculty, to meet them where they are,” Minor said. “In other words, understand their needs — and find out what we can do to best meet those needs.”