Born a Creationist, Merck’s Schadt Leads Open Source Effort to Unravel Genome

3/13/09Follow @xconomy

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on how he resolved this conflict. He doesn’t subscribe to his parents’ religion, or attend church. But even with everything he has learned about evolution, he says he is awed by the complexity of nature and wonders if something else besides natural selection is at work. “I think there’s something more out there,” he says.

When he finished up his doctorate in bio-mathematics at UCLA, he chose a career in industry. Academia just couldn’t afford the big-time computing horsepower needed to make sense of all the genomic data, he says. After an initial stint with Roche in Palo Alto, CA, he came to the Seattle area to join Rosetta during its independent heyday in 1999, before it was acquired by Merck for $620 million in 2001.

Schadt has had a productive run at Merck, according to the published literature. Stephen Friend, who founded Rosetta and continued his career in the Merck executive ranks, raves about him. “There are brilliant people who can quickly come to the next logical decision with lightning speed,” Friend says. “What sets Eric apart is that his solutions cannot be mapped to what others would consider logical next steps. To the rare few of these I like to use the term of transformers.”

But all good runs come to an end sometime. Merck announced last fall it is closing its Rosetta division in Seattle with 300 employees. Even without that extra nudge, Schadt and Friend say they have been talking about the idea of splitting off into a nonprofit since 2007, because they realized pooling data from academic scientists around the world in an open database has more potential than what they can do strictly inside a corporate wall. “If we get a glimpse of 1 percent of the data, it costs a lot of money. To get the kind of data we want is beyond the scope of what any one company can afford,” Schadt says.

Schadt says he wants biologists around the world to see this new project as a true collaborative, not something locked up inside a powerful institution like the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, or the Broad Institute. The more open Sage is, the more successful it will be, he says.

Schadt says he would like to stay in Seattle for this next chapter of his career—he snowboards in the winter, and wakeboards in the summer. But if he needs to move his family somewhere else to make Sage a success, so be it, he says. “I’m mission-driven. And we have a big mission.”

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