Q + A: Scientist on a roller coaster

FriendThe twists and turns of Stephen Friend’s career are both dizzying and thrilling. In the early days, Stephen Friend, MD, PhD, CEO and co-founder of Sage Bionetworks, spent many a late night as a resident in the emergency room at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia with Gary Fleischer, MD, current pediatrician-in-chief at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Friend later wound up at Boston Children’s as well, where he did his pediatric hematology-oncology fellowship and later, as part of the faculty, helped co-lead the team that identified the first tumor suppressor at Boston Children’s. A few years later, Friend left academia to pursue his passion in a startup and later engineered a landing at Sage Bionetworks, a nonprofit focused on patient engagement and open science in the research process. The Resilience Project, one of Sage’s research initiatives, analyzes DNA from healthy volunteers to discover rare mutations that protect resilient people from serious childhood illnesses.

In November, Friend will be on the Global Pediatric Innovation Summit + Awards stage as a panelist on the Patient Engagement in a Big Data World panel. He sat down with Vector to share his thoughts on working outside one’s comfort zone, suspending disbelief, supporting emerging innovators and more.

On comfort zones—roller coaster and recliners

Vector: Your work seems to nudge others to the edge or perhaps, just beyond, their comfort zones. What’s the benefit of working in that zone?
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Friend:  It’s easy, but totally boring, to work in your comfort zone. A researcher can catch an eddy current and ride a stream someone else has already set. The scientific method we teach in school encourages to researchers to follow these existing paths. But when you are in those streams, you realize the work will go on regardless of your participation. It’s akin to lounging in a La-Z Boy.

The most important opportunities don’t follow already-flowing streams but instead ask “what could be” in an inductive way. Encouraging innovators to work outside their comfort zone has a tremendous benefit. It’s where real innovation occurs.

On goals—startups, pharma and nonprofits

Vector:  In 2009, you left Merck and the comfort of big pharma to dive into the startup world. But you still work quite closely with pharma. Is one type of organization optimal for your goals?

Friend:  People forget that each component of the ecosystem—academia, biotech, industry, nonprofit—is honed for particular tasks. There is no optimal strategy or institution to execute on a problem. I’ve made a seismic shift twice in my career—from academia to a startup, and from large pharma to nonprofit startup. Instead of trying to assess which type of institution is better, the setting should be driven by the question the person is trying to answer or the problem she is trying to solve.

If you already have an idea of a protein you think is a good drug component, staying in academia or going to industry is a bad idea. A biotech startup will support your passion; the amount of work needed to succeed is most likely to be achieved in this environment. On the other hand, if you are interested in doing a 10-year longitudinal study that requires $10 million to make an insight, the chances that you would do that in startup are zero.

On collaboration—and suspending disbelief

Vector:  Sage Bionetworks asks for—and achieves—an unprecedented level of collaboration among all stakeholders in the research and innovation process. Why is this so hard to achieve?

Friend:  Many of us equate large-scale collaboration with achieving the lowest common denominator provided by consensus. It’s important get people to suspend their disbelief.

The first reaction of most people is to ask, “Why would I want to collaborate? I know the work that needs to be done.” This model works well for one-dimensional problems where a core area of expertise may suffice.

However, the problems that are most exciting to solve in pediatric medicine are often extremely complex or multidimensional. They require multiple experts with different types of knowledge to work together. The new art is bringing together experts who represent different dimensions, and gaining insights that any one expert will not have.

These experts need to learn to speak the same language. Typically, collaborative groups don’t reach the point where they are productive until group members learn to speak the same language and listen to each other.

On engaging scientists—motivation and more

Vector:  The Resilience Project asks scientists to share and analyze data on a wholly new level. What do you think is incentivizing scientists to participate?

Friend:  A year or two ago, the concept of looking for positive outliers from childhood genetic disease——people with a genetic mutation but not the genetic disease—was foreign for most scientists. A typical response to our work was, “That’s so abstract. I don’t know whether that’s something I’m interested in.”
In the last year, large companies like Regeneron, 23andme and Vertex have discovered the power of trying to identify protective mutations in these positive outliers. So there’s an interest among scientists in working on the project. There’s a sense that there’s a very amazing end result in this very large project. We have a chance to find the cause of cystic fibrosis or Alzheimer’s disease, and scientists want to be a part of that.

Watch this TedTalk to learn more about The Resilience Project:

On exchanging ideas

Vector:  What’s pulling you to participate in this year’s Global Pediatric Innovation Summit?

Friend:  I see the Summit as sort of cauldron. It has boundaries that allow dialogues and interactions that might not go on if it weren’t bounded by pediatric innovation. In contrast to large meetings with thousands of attendees and smaller meetings that don’t have the focus of precision pediatrics, the Summit provides the critical mass for a person to bump into the person they need for the problem they have. The chance that those dialogues are going to go on are optimized compared to other events.

Learn more about Boston Children’s Global Pediatric Innovation Summit + Awards.