PASADENA, CALIF.—Harry Gray can walk the 30 feet or so from his third-floor office at the California Institute of Technology and look out the window at a gigantic hole in the ground. Next to it is a huge mound of dirt covered with opaque plastic. The dirt, taken from the hole, will eventually be used for backfill, and the mound is affectionately called “Mount Beckman” after its benefactor, Arnold Beckman. Gray walks to the window frequently and happily; he is looking at the construction site for his nascent empire—a novel, possibly daring experiment in the ability of universities to support innovative and potentially commercial science.

Although multidisciplinary research is something of a buzzword around campuses these days, Caltech’s budding Beckman Institute offers a new and unprecedented twist on the basic idea. The institute is designed to marry the fields of chemistry and biology, pushing them into working together to develop...

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