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

8/6/09Follow @xconomy

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genomic researchers to think in the future, Friend says.

“We’re going to scour the globe and find collaborators with coherent global genomic data sets with clinical outcome measures,” Friend says.

Friend doesn’t really know how many of these holistic data sets exist in the world, but he’s looking. Whatever it is now, he wants it to grow a lot from today, so what he’s really talking about is a more cross-disciplinary cultural transformation in biology and medicine.

Like any new international organization, Sage needs a broad base of support, and Friend is planning a charter summit for this fall, probably in November. This is going to be a pivotal meeting for the future of Sage, not only to see if Friend can drum up enough support for his vision, but to get people to collaborate on some of those essential organizational details.

These are not small things. Part of the agenda will be to work on ground rules for how intellectual property and data privacy are handled, what incentives researchers have to bare their souls and put their data in the pool, and what standards should be followed to ensure the data is consistent and not full of inconsistencies and errors. Then the user interface will have to be easy to use, or many biologists probably won’t use it.

These are hard questions that Sage will have to wrestle with for months, and probably years, if it’s to fulfill its vision of turning biology into a truly collaborative field of study. But these are the heady days for Friend.

Friend is moving with such energy that he hasn’t even bothered yet to hang a picture on the wall. The day we spoke, he was looking forward to holding a retreat for the Sage team at his home on Stuart Island in the San Juans, and he said some members might just camp out on his yard to get a view of the stars.

An individual on Earth may feel small when looking out at the universe like that, but Friend is drawing some inspiration from small teams of committed people that have shown they can tap into those greater forces. Twitter, for one, has found a way to harness social networks in such a powerful way that it may have altered the course of world events after the Iranian election, Friend says. With a staff of just 43 people.

He’s thinking about how in his small organization, he can light the kind of fire in the world community of biology that could have such an impact. Sage’s success will depend, like Twitter, on getting other people to do the work. And to entice other biologists to participate, Friend is appealing to their desire to discover.

“With new tools comes new understanding, and paradigms fall,” Friend says.

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