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Exclusive: Stephen Friend on the Road from Merck to Sage

By Kevin Davies

May 28, 2009 | In just over a month, Merck senior vice president and head of oncology, Stephen Friend, will return to Seattle where he founded Rosetta Inpharmatics more than a decade ago, to launch an ambitious new non-profit venture called Sage. Bio-IT World editor-in-chief Kevin Davies reached Friend at London’s Heathrow Airport to get his reaction to Sage co-founder Eric Schadt’s appointment at Pacific Biosciences and his own transition from Merck.

Bio-IT World: Stephen, how is the launch of Sage progressing and how will it be impacted by Eric Schadt’s move to PacBio?

Stephen Friend
Stephen Friend
Friend:  The Sage mission looks good. We’re 30-plus days to the transition. What I spend my time thinking about is that the [Merck] asset transfer agreement and links with funding institutions are coming into place. They are! For the past year, I have known of Eric’s interest in making sure that Sage was powered up properly, but also that his desire to be rich to the new technologies was going to be something that always had some possibility. In that context, what I’m pleased with is the commitment that he has to help drive the mission we’re doing in Sage—I really feel that’s important to him. Eric is satisfied that the original Sage goals are there. I think he’s hoping, and I am hoping, that some of the new technologies that will make the ability to acquire the raw data for building models will come along. We share an interest in that.

So Eric Schadt’s decision wasn’t a total shock?

It wasn’t!… Let’s put it in context. Sage needs models and sufficient data to be able to do the common open access platforms… The ability to really build out these disease models was limited by the technology. Where he feels a need to drive is both in building the models, which is always what he’s enjoyed, but also [to] get involved in making the data, getting the data into the models. If you picture a Venn diagram, or two pieces, the primary Sage interest starts with the models and goes onto the platform on which you’d want to put those models… I actually think for a while, we thought, we can just do it all, the pieces will be on either side. I think we appreciated over the last couple of months that that was tricky to try and do it all.

What is Merck contributing to Sage? Data? IP? Funding?

The key components are the data and—this is important—the clusters that contain that [data], the know-how, and the people doing the work... We’re trying to work in a space where IP is not a driver. So having the data and the clusters, combined with people and the know-how is what we feel is sufficient.

You’ve checked all the boxes—medical research, a start-up, big pharma, now a non-profit. What are your thoughts upon leaving Merck?

I’m not trying to do a grand flush! The problem, which I think is going to be the hardest one, the one I hope I can add the most to, is: How can multiple groups that until now have been siloed, be brought together in a way that they recognize that, by sharing that data, the models they build will get them each to their respective tasks. What I saw was the power of large groups working on things, but I also saw the limit to that large group.

My shift to a different stage in life is really simple. I think the complexity of biology is far greater than anyone is willing to admit. To actually be able to make sense of out of that will not be a solo group. It will not be a product. It will not be a company by itself, but instead, a community effort. That is really tough, but I think now is the time to work on it. How we do that is something we can wave our hands at, but we don’t really know the best way yet to move that forward.

Do you see signs within pharma that pre-competitive sharing can gather momentum?

I think it is and it isn’t... People are waking up: Oh my god, I don’t know what to do with the data. Where they are not willing to be pre-competitive is when they start in with strategies. People have made a mistake in trying to get companies to cooperate when they absolutely need to have an advantage and to have something that’s theirs. That split between what is and what’s not pre-competitive has gotten garbled. Why won’t pharma companies work together? That’s the wrong argument.

If you have an exit interview when you leave Merck, what will you say were your group’s greatest achievements and frustrations?

On the frustration, I was naïve to the length of time required to move an idea through to a target, through to a compound, as all are. Anyone who has not been in pharma who says they know how long it takes—until you’re there, you don’t! It’s not the company per se, but the process. We’re frustrated that I can’t move time. The rest of it was actually a remarkable view into an efficient organism that outstrips so much that you can usually do if you have not had that coherence in a company. I was frustrated by some of the time elements, but I was impressed by the ability to execute on large projects.


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