Stanford, UCSD Biologists Take Plunge Into Arpanet-Style Project With Sage Bionetworks

10/6/10Follow @xconomy

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from its host by allowing scientists there a certain amount of access to the database, Friend says.

Writing the software to analyze all this data, and figuring out how to store it are clearly a couple of the big operational challenges ahead as Sage hopes to entice more companies like Merck and more researchers like Ideker and Butte to get on board. Sage is looking at options to use cloud computing options like those offered by Amazon as a way to store the data in an easily scalable and accessible way as it grows. And Sage is actively hiring software engineers in anticipation of this growth—Friend said he expects Sage to have 35 employees a year from now. Getting the right people on board, the same kind of risk-seekers who helped build the organization in its first year, will be key.

All the technical stuff is important, but won’t mean much if Sage doesn’t win the cultural battle. He’s been reading up on Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom‘s work on how game theory can be used to spur collective action. He’s incorporated some of what he’s picked up when he takes his case to university presidents and tech transfer offices. The hope is to help set up policies that reward scientists for pooling their data in the open, not necessarily by filing patent applications, Friend says. “You have to build shining examples,” he says, on getting people to convert.

Not everyone, of course, buys in right away for Friend’s argument for urgent, revolutionary change in how biologists generate, share, and hope to potentially profit from their data. It is, after all, challenging the status quo of academic research and the for-profit biotech and pharmaceutical industries. Groundbreaking ideas in biology-based industries take years to prove their mettle in experiments in everything from mice to real human beings, who need to be tracked for years of follow up in order to answer basic questions.

This isn’t something that will happen overnight. That’s not easy for Friend to accept, but he understands it’s just reality. One of Sage’s directors, Hans Wigzell of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, has advised Friend to “rush slowly.” While that sounds like an oxymoron, Friend explained what it means.

“It means keep the momentum, keep the energy up, don’t get complacent, and don’t give up,” Friend says. “But at the same time, acknowledge that the time this will take is measured in half decades, or decades. We’ve wandered into an area where it’s not about quarterly progress reports on the big mission. Fortunately, this is a nonprofit where you can do that.”

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  • dave blake

    Sounds like the next logical step…Dave