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X marks the spotlight for elusive benefactor Add to ...

The Canadian diamond hunter behind one of the largest science prizes in history - the catalyst for a race firing up researchers the world over - rarely allows himself to be caught in the spotlight.

Multimillionaire Stewart Blusson, "Stu," as he likes to be called, is more comfortable riding the bus, flying the red-eye or fixing his neighbours' vehicles.

The only car the 67-year-old owns himself is a 1979 Ford Mustang, a battered grey beast with no heat and a broken window. He parks it for free at the Yellowknife airport, just 300 kilometres from the billion-dollar diamond mine he co-discovered.

"I don't really have a sense of being wealthy," said Dr. Blusson, a geologist. "I'd just as well be living in a tent or sleeping under a spruce tree than in a fancy hotel."

All the same, Dr. Blusson's spending is forcing him out of comfort's closet.

Thursday, he's to give $5-million to an educational program at the Vancouver Aquarium. Later this fall, $10-million will go to the spinal-cord research centre that activist Rick Hansen is backing. And this month, he's earned a place among the world's noted philanthropists by putting up $10-million (U.S) to fund the next X Prize.

The first X Prize, won by a team of engineers in 2004, launched a high-profile international competition for the first commercial spacecraft. Dr. Blusson's edition is to go to anyone who can develop a quick and inexpensive way to sequence a human genome. To prove it, the winner must decode the DNA of 100 people in 10 days.

Three U.S. biotech firms have already signed up and The Globe and Mail has learned that a Canadian team, led by senior scientist Steve Scherer at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, is in the making.

"I've got a few people in my group who are completely working day and night on the problems," said Dr. Scherer, whose researchers are collaborating with colleagues in Hong Kong.

"The great thing about this X Prize . . . is it generates a huge amount of interest from many people of diverse disciplines who will try to do it just for the challenge of doing it. It is very refreshing to hear a Canadian is behind the entrepreneurial spirit this time around."

Of course, Dr. Blusson would have preferred no one heard a thing about him.

In 1998, he donated $50-million for basic research to the University of British Columbia, his alma mater. It ranked as the largest gift from a single individual in Canadian history at the time, but Dr. Blusson wanted neither wing nor wall to be named in his honour. At the UBC press conference announcing the money, he was nowhere to be found.

In 2002, he gave $32-million to the private Quest University in Squamish, B.C. The donation became public only after Dr. Blusson's mining and exploration company, Archon Minerals Ltd., filed disclosure documents with the B.C. Securities Commission two years later.

"I'd rather be totally anonymous and reserved about all of this," he said. "I don't like to think of myself as a philanthropist."

But Dr. Blusson understands that the X Prize is different. To tweak the imagination of potential competitors, the non-profit, California-based foundation that administers the award has to spread the word.

"I understand that we have to get the message out. I understand that not [making myself]available can hurt a campaign," Dr. Blusson said. "I feel so appreciative, so privileged to be able to do this. We could be talking here about a rebirth of medicine."

Celebrities such as CNN television interviewer Larry King, physicist Stephen Hawking and Google co-founder Larry Page have added to the buzz by volunteering to be among a separate group of 100 people who would have their genomes sequenced by the winner - a possibility Dr. Blusson is considering.

But winning will be no small feat. The first draft map of the human genome, announced in 2000, still contains gaps in the three billion chemical units that make up its code. It has taken more than a decade to compile, and some suspect it has cost close to $1-billion. Experts estimate that the cheapest price of one genome today still remains about $100,000 (U.S.).

Yet hopes for personalized medicine - in which diagnoses and more effective treatments could be tailored to your DNA - hinge on figuring out a way to make genome sequencing cheaply and quickly available for any patient.

Dr. Blusson said he hopes it will also bring the cures of the future, noting that his wife Marilyn's mother and sister both died of cancer at young ages.

Dr. Blusson was always more interested in boulders than biology himself. He interprets rocks the way some people read music, so that even his quick talk sounds a bit like a stone skipping across a pond.

But no matter the subject, he said, he has always been a fan of basic research.

"I had a calling for a science," he said. "But the real calling for me was to work outdoors."

He completed his undergraduate work at the University of British Columbia and earned his doctorate in geology at the University of California at Berkeley. He joined the National Geological Survey in 1964 and spent 15 "golden years" in Canada's Far North filling in the details of its terrain. Along the way, he survived a serious helicopter crash, more than his share of blizzards and a grizzly-bear attack.

While working on the survey, he met geologist Charles Fipke and the two forged their much-mocked prospecting plan to find diamonds in Canada's north. Experts said even if a stash existed, retrieving it from beneath the frozen tundra would be impossible.

Still, Dr. Blusson felt the diamonds could be found by following the path of glaciers through the earth's crust. It was a lean four-year hunt, half supported by Dr. Blusson's wife Marilyn, a flight attendant. But in 1985, they found Canada's first diamond deposit near Lac de Gras in the Northwest Territories.

In 1998, they sold 80 per cent of their stake in what became known as the Ekati Mine, with Dr. Blusson and his partner each keeping 10 per cent.

With nothing to back them but their own hunch, Dr. Blusson has now taken a particular pride in what could happen with the X Prize.

"I like the idea that you don't have be a part of 'big science' to participate in this. Experts tell me that even some small group could end up winning this prize," he said.

Dr. Blusson has asked that the competition be known as the Archon X Prize. Not after his company, he said, but after Archean Craton, the ancient core plate beneath Canada, and his diamond discovery.

Dr. Blusson came to hear about the X Prize for genomics after the Philanthropy Roundtable Conference at the Biltmore Hotel in Scarsdale, Ariz., a year ago. The conference offers one of the year's best chances for those looking to give to meet those hoping to get.

Last November, physician Peter Diamandis, who founded the X Prize Foundation in 1994, gave a speech describing its work.

The foundation was fashioned after the cash awards that helped to build the aviation industry in the early 20th century - particularly the Orteig Prize, which went to Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis group in 1927. It was modelled on the notion that innovation need not come from large-scale government efforts.

In the audience, Blake Bromley, a Vancouver tax lawyer who specializes in investigating philanthropic causes for his clients, liked what he heard.

"You're not picking the scientist or the institution . . . if someone in Romania qualifies, they can do it," Mr. Bromley said. "Somebody has to be passionate about whatever the objective is."

He thought of Dr. Blusson immediately.

"One of the things that distinguishes his philanthropy is to take non-establishment projects and back them in a big way," Mr. Bromley said.

Part of Dr. Blusson's donation to UBC helped to fund the research of late Nobel laureate and genetics researcher Michael Smith.

The late Dr. Smith had called Dr. Blusson the day he won the Nobel.

"Marilyn had to come out and get me," he said. "I was under the car changing the muffler."

 

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