May 13, 2013 | First Base | I received an email alert over the weekend with the following title:
"Kevin Davies Reflects on Emotional Goodbye."
The story was about a professional soccer player in the UK leaving the club he had captained and served for ten years. Coincidentally, I'm also doing a spot of reflection, for this is my last First Base editor's column for Bio-IT World. Today marks the hugely deserved appointment of Allison Proffitt as the new editorial director of Bio-IT World. Meanwhile, I am slipping away to begin a new publishing role with the world's largest scientific society, the American Chemical Society.
Bringing the IT
It was just over 11 years ago that Bio-IT World debuted in March 2002 with a cover blazing the inspired title: "Bring IT On!"
For years, science and business magazines had been noting the impending surge of information. Sorting through files, I stumbled upon one in the Economist from 1999, "Drowning in Data." Finally, courtesy of IDG, the publisher of Computerworld, PCWorld, and several other high-tech magazines, the fledgling industry, inspired by the application of supercomputing for genome assembly and research, had a voice, under the guiding hand of CEO Moe Levitt.
And it had a venue, too. The inaugural Bio-IT World Expo, coinciding with our first issue, was put on by the IDG World Expo Group, best known as the producer of the semi-annual Macworld extravaganza. For one time only, the event was promoted with billboards above MIT and a 4-page color insert in the Boston Globe! There was even a wedding band providing live music at the opening reception.
We could quibble with some of those decisions, but not with the choice of opening keynote: Eric Lander spoke eloquently about the new era of digital biology, the critical importance of computational science in biomedical research, and the impact that would have on the biopharma industry—and Wall Street.
Eric was introduced by Pat McGovern, the founder and chairman of IDG, who went on to establish the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, an even bolder expression of his passion for the intersection of IT and life sciences.
It is a little painful looking back at the handsome broadsheet monthly issues of those early years, bursting with pages of display ads, handsomely designed by art director Mark Gabrenya and showcasing a gifted group of journalists—Malorye Allison, John Dodge, Mark Uehling, Sal Salamone, and founding executive editor John Russell.
One of the highlights of those early years was a cover story by a young Michigan freelance writer, Melissa Kruse, entitled "The Souls of September," about developing the software that assisted in the DNA identification of victims of the Ground Zero attack. Six months later, we met Melissa for the first time at the Waldorf Astoria in New York for the annual Neal Awards. We'd barely exchanged hellos when she told us she thought she'd won.
"What makes you say that?" I asked.
"I got here early and when I opened the door to the ballroom, I heard my name being read out!" She was absolutely right, of course.
In 2006, IDG sold Bio-IT World to Cambridge Healthtech Institute, a successful conference production company that was looking to diversify. For the next 5 years, a leaner, meaner editorial team fought to keep a vibrant print publication afloat but the end was pretty much inevitable. As Conan O'Brien said at the White House Correspondents' Dinner recently, "Some say print media is dying, but I don't believe it. And neither does my blacksmith!"
In stark contrast, the Bio-IT World Conference has grown magnificently, fueled by the data deluge accompanying the arrival of next-gen sequencing and network biology. The conference now draws thousands to Boston every April, with spin-off meetings in Europe and Asia, not to mention more focused conferences on the West Coast, including The Clinical Genome Conference, which debuted last summer.
Rather than reflect on the ups and downs of the past 11 years, let me simply lay out some of my most vivid memories from my perch at Bio-IT World:
Over the years, we developed a cover jinx not unlike that of Sports Illustrated. We were courting trouble when, in 2008, we dubbed the founder of in silico start-up Epix Pharmaceuticals "America's Next Top Modeller."
The company closed its doors the following year.
Unquestionably Howard Jacob's 2011 account
(at the Future of Genomic Medicine conference) of the clinical genome saga of Nicholas Volker and his team's ongoing commitment to ending the diagnostic odysseys of pediatric patients.
Best Single Issue:
Possibly September 2010's "The Road to the $1000 Genome,"
not coincidentally the same month that my book "The $1000 Genome" was published. (I figured if my friend Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired, could plug his new book in a magazine cover story and get away with it, so could I.)
Best Title: "Fantastic 454"
—at least in the minds of Jonathan Rothberg's children—their father emailed me within 10 minutes of the 2005 story going online to express his family's approval. (We also got a kick out of putting a title on a recent interview named after a Saturday Night Live character.)
Quizzical look: George Church at the Bio-IT World Expo. As a warm-up for our first plenary session panel discussion, I saw fit to play Monty Python's "Communist Quiz" sketch. The confused look on George's face was priceless. "The Hammers is the nickname of which English football team..?"
Two minutes into the 2006 keynote by GlaxoSmithKline's Allen Roses
, three animal rights campaigners in the audience stood up, unfurled banners and started chanting protests. Three of our sales reps took matters into their own hands, dove into the audience and unceremoniously dragged the campaigners out.
After barely five minutes, an irritable, jet-lagged Kari Stefansson (deCODE Genetics) called off an interview after our reporter John Dodge supposedly asked him too many basic questions
... only Dodge wouldn't let him. John stood face-to-face with the deCODE CEO, told him he's just doing his job, and suggested they finish the interview. A somewhat surprised Stefansson paused, smiled, shook hands and peace was restored.
New England Journal of Medicine editor Jeff Drazen was highly skeptical about the value of personal genomics testing. "I'm from Missouri, the Show Me State," he said on a 2008 panel. "You've got to show me!" In the audience, Robert Green nonchalantly said that's great, because his manuscript—the REVEAL Study—would be on Drazen's desk the following week. (Drazen duly published it.) Video
Best Keynote: Lander in 2002? Ray Kurzweil? Stephen Wolfram? Venter, Collins, Berners-Lee? I can't pick. But I would give special commendation to BioTeam co-founder Chris Dagdigian's annual unofficial fourth keynote, "Trends from the Trenches."
Best Garb: Eric Schadt
(Mount Sinai School of Medicine) delivering his Expo keynote in trademark white polo shirt, rumpled khaki shorts and hiking boots.
Looking at the audience at CHI's first next-gen sequencing conference
in San Diego in 2007. (We were going to call it "High-throughput sequencing" but I lobbied for a more dynamic title.) From the buzz in the room before the opening session, it was clear an annual meeting wasn't going to cut it. CHI has held a pair of bicoastal NGS conferences ever since.
Best Team Effort:
The eruption of Eyjafjallajökull
, the Icelandic volcano, prevented dozens of scheduled European speakers from traveling to Boston for the 2010 Expo, so my colleagues, led by Cindy Crowninshield, deployed every means of telecommunication to save what would have been a decimated program. Every European except one, that is—Stefansson reported clear skies flying out of Reykjavik.
It's been a blast watching the bio-IT community flourish over the past 11 years, and I envy the stories and opportunities that will fall to Allison and the new Bio-IT team. Let me sign off by thanking all my former colleagues and all the staff at CHI. I wish them every success and smooth sailing.
Thanks and goodbye for now.
Kevin Davies PhD