Bill Gates - Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

When a name adds more than a number

Name: Bill Gates
Title: Founder, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Wherever Bill Gates goes, he brings his own bright spotlight and a pack of eager reporters out to track his every move and comment. For years the Microsoft magnate has used that star power to attract attention and money for a global effort to develop new drugs and vaccines for long-neglected diseases. But more recently, he's also been making waves by investing his own cash in biotech companies. And even a relatively small investment commands the kind of positive attention that most biotechs can only dream about.

Foundation Medicine--a 2012 Fierce 15 company--found out just how influential Gates' Midas touch can be recently, basking in the media limelight after Gates helped extend its Series B. Foundation--which developed a test that identifies a lengthy roster of genetic mutations that can drive cancer--didn't really need the money. What it did benefit from enormously was Gates' endorsement. "People will want this," he summed up after a short one-on-one with Foundation execs.

That kind of assessment is worth money in the bank for a biotech, as Schrödinger and its partner Nimbus Discovery can likely attest. Gates liked the sophisticated computer technology that they work with, high praise indeed from one of the High Lords of Technology. And the fact that he invested his own cash in the companies, rather than providing one of the grants he uses to encourage work on behalf of the poor, speaks louder than words.

Gates prominent role in the Seattle-area biotech scene, near Microsoft's Redmond base, began decades ago. He was the largest shareholder and a director at the Bothell, WA-based biotech Icos before Eli Lilly ($LLY) wrapped up its $2.1 billion buyout of its Cialis partner in 2007.

His latest moves to back biotech operations haven't lessened his commitment to neglected diseases. This week, the industry was awaiting word of an ambitious midstage study that would help determine the effectiveness of a potential breakthrough tuberculosis vaccine. But that is just one of dozens of programs in the works. And global health chief Trevor Mundel has outlined plans to invest Gates Foundation cash in up to a dozen biotechs a year, looking for a payback in rights to use the technology in developing countries rather than demand a traditional return on investment like a VC.

The influential can employ a variety of currencies, not strictly cash. Gates' enthusiasm for biotech has to be one of the most valuable contributions in the business today.

-- John Carroll (email | Twitter)

Bill Gates - Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation