Open Source Biology Movement Co-Founder, Merck’s Eric Schadt, Leaves for New Job

5/28/09Follow @xconomy

Merck’s Eric Schadt, one of the creative forces in a fledgling effort to start an open-source computing movement for biology, is leaving that role after a couple of months for a new full-time job.

Schadt, 44, the executive director of Merck’s Rosetta Inpharmatics division in Seattle, has agreed to become the chief scientific officer for Menlo Park, CA-based Pacific Biosciences. PacBio, for short, has raised more than $190 million in the past five years from the likes of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and other investors to develop new instruments that will make it possible to sequence entire genomes much more cheaply, and in greater detail, than can be done today.

This new gig means Schadt—a world leader in using mathematical models to show how genetic abnormalities lead to disease—will give up his full-time role in Seattle at Sage Bionetworks. This is the open-source biology nonprofit he incorporated in February with fellow Merck executive Stephen Friend, who corralled $5 million in anonymous donations for the effort. It certainly doesn’t sound like an auspicious beginning for a co-founder to leave such full-time project so soon, but Schadt insists he will maintain close ties. He plans to keep his house in Seattle, and travel here one day a week for consulting to Sage. He also plans to make sure PacBio machines in coming years will provide the richly detailed data on different genetic profiles that will be the essential raw material needed if Sage is going to catch on with biologists.

“I’ll still be involved with Sage,” Schadt says. “Sage’s main goal is to provide open access to enable researchers to analyze complex genetic databases. I realized that one of the things that’s critical for it to be successful is that we generate the right kind of data for it.”

Friend, who will remain based in Seattle as the chief executive of Sage, said Schadt will be able to continue driving the project forward. “He will be able to accelerate data generation for the project” while at PacBio, Friend says. He added that Schadt has been thinking for months about how to get potent enough “fuel,” or data, to make Sage’s engine run right. “It’s like if you have a big engine, and not enough fuel to start the engine, that’s not a good thing.”

So by working on developing the new tools for producing data, Schadt hopes he will give researchers around the world a sort of clay to work with as they build new mathematical models to help make these complex data sets talk to each other. Then others on the Sage project will devise software or user interfaces that can put all complex information into a format people can understand so they can put it to real-world use for crafting new experiments, or even prescribing a certain drug.

This is all pretty heady stuff. But the basic idea behind Sage—as I described in March— is built on work Friend and Schadt directed at Merck’s Rosetta division for the past seven years. Their premise is … Next Page »

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