Stephen Friend, Leaving High-Powered Merck Gig, Lights Fire for Open Source Biology Movement

8/6/09Follow @xconomy

Stephen Friend had it all at Merck. The lucrative salary, the national media fame, the respect of peers, the power to snap his fingers and command a corporate army of some of the brightest minds in biomedicine. This year, he gave it all up for a startup dream.

Friend, 54, is best known in Seattle as the founder of Rosetta Inpharmatics, the cutting-edge genome analysis company that was acquired by Merck in 2001 for more than $600 million. For the past eight years, he worked on the East Coast as a senior vice president for the pharmaceutical giant, and spent much of his time running the company’s worldwide cancer research. Now he’s back in Seattle, dreaming big again as founder and CEO of a global nonprofit collaborative called Sage Bionetworks.

Sage, as we first described back in March, is attempting to do for biology what Facebook and Twitter have done for social networking, and Linux has for open-source software. Sage is needed because biologists are beginning to see how vast networks of genes get perturbed in complex diseases like cancer, diabetes, and multiple sclerosis. All of this genomic data is too complex for any individual, or team of scientists—even at a place as big and rich as Merck—to fully grasp. Yet researchers scattered around the world are capturing huge volumes of genomic data on their computers, hoping it will someday be fodder for groundbreaking discoveries. Sage wants to get all these biologists to now start sharing their data in a free, open database, so they can pool their brainpower to come up with insights that one person, or team, never would discover in isolation. The ultimate result would be more effective drugs, just like open-source computing can create better software.

Friend has been pushing for this type of collaboration for years at Merck, but it wasn’t really possible inside the proprietary walls of a company. That’s why he had to start something new. He told me how thrilling, and terrifying, it was to suddenly shed all the support he had at a big company, and be back in startup mode, pouring every ounce of his energy into the one thing he’s most passionate about.

“It feels like I’m moulting,” he says.

Since the original story broke in March, many essential organizational tasks have been done. The first checks have been deposited from donors (Friend won’t say how much) out of the original $5 million in commitments. Accounting systems have been set up. The intellectual property that Merck agreed to hand over, that represents eight years and $150 million of work, has been signed over and transferred. Through help from his friend, Nobel Laureate Lee Hartwell, the new nonprofit has set up office space at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Fifteen of the bright minds from Merck’s Rosetta operation have come to work at Sage full-time. Phones and e-mail are up and running.

Sage still isn’t fully disclosing who its supporters are, although the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the U.K-based Wellcome Trust are “stakeholders” that have said they would like to participate as the ground rules are being framed, Friend says. One foundation, the Cure Huntington’s Disease Initiative, has agreed to disclose it contributed … Next Page »

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