Amazon and Google are snagging star scientists from top academic institutions

Key Points
  • Tech companies like Amazon and Google are snapping up bioinformaticists.
  • Academic institutions have figured out one way to deal with the brain drain.
DuPont research scientists at work in a biobutanol molecular biology lab
Source: Dupont

Seattle's prestigious Institute for Systems Biology has long been a draw for star experimental scientists. But it's now in a battle for talent with some deep-pocketed competitors: Amazon and Google.

Out of a group of a dozen researchers, four have recently left for Amazon, Google and Microsoft, said Nathan Price, associate director of ISB, which is now owned by Providence Health & Services, a non-profit network of hospitals.

Rather than fighting to hang onto the institute's standout biologists and bioinformaticists, Price has figured out a way to embrace the trend.

"We're asking talented researchers to come spend a few years with us, and develop something cool before they get recruited out," he told CNBC.

Prized academics are in high demand by technology companies, which are racing to bring cloud computing and machine learning to the $3 trillion health care market. ISB, for instance, uses both Amazon Web Services and Google's cloud technology on various projects.

As tech companies vie for contracts with large health systems to manage a growing volume of their most sensitive data, they need employees on board who understand specific topics like protein networks and gene networks, said Price.

At ISB, which was co-founded by genetics pioneer Leroy "Lee" Hood, researchers bolster their scientific knowledge by taking engineering courses from services like education site Coursera, said Price.

In the future, Price said that academic institutions will need to figure out a way to better compete with the industry. Currently, tech firms can pay so much more that he's losing talent even when scientists have little clarity about what they'll be doing. Alphabet's life sciences arm Verily hired one of his data scientists without providing specifics on the project, Price said.

"These people are really important to the future of what we want to do," he said. "In academia, we need to close the gap more than we have been."