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No PhD, “No Fear”: Alice Zhang, 27, Aims Software At Neuro Diseases

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gotten a head start in neurodegeneration.

Saira Ramasastry, a former investment banker and Wall Street biotech analyst, was at Zhang’s side for several J.P. Morgan meetings. She says one pharma has signed up to work with Verge, which can combine the company’s internal data with public data sets to “see how the gene networks light up” for a particular disease. (She and Zhang decline to name the partner or the disease.)

Ultimately, Verge wants to own the drugs moving toward the clinic and not just provide the software helping behind the scenes. “That’s the ultimate value,” says Zhang.

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“There’s a lot more unexpected things being in a startup,” Zhang says. “You have to go with the flow. Learn on the fly.”

Zhang was born and raised in the Washington, DC, suburbs, the only child of Chinese immigrants. Her father was a political refugee, part of the “Democracy Wall” movement of the late 1970s. He fled to the U.S. in the early 1980s, years before the Tiananmen Square protest and massacre, and met Zhang’s mother in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens.

Zhang got a big jolt of the unexpected on her first visit to China, when she was 12. She was with her parents. They landed and were immediately put under house arrest, Zhang says. Authorities interviewed her parents for two days, then sent them back to the U.S.

Several years later, she returned in her late teens to a somewhat more open China to do human rights work in the so-called “AIDS villages,” where people infected during corrupt blood-donation schemes were sequestered and the tragedy was covered up. “That was at first time at an early age I saw people dying without any help, and the moment at which I realized the kind of impact I wanted to have,” says Zhang.

She entered an MD/PhD program at UCLA but soon felt that helping one patient at a time wasn’t powerful enough: “The upside is limited. You can only see so many patients in a lifetime,” she says. And the intellectual side of it—a lot of memorization—didn’t appeal to her. “Honestly there’s so much information to absorb, most people don’t have time to dig into anything too deeply,” she says. “I was often told, ‘Stop asking why, Alice,’ and I finally said, ‘Hmmm, this is not for me.'”

Switching to research in the Geschwind Lab at UCLA, she could ask ‘why’ a lot. She began studying “functional genomics”—the intersection of genes and drugs in neuro-regeneration. She visited Clifford Woolf’s neuroscience lab at Boston Children’s Hospital, which frequently collaborates with Geschwind. It’s a “wet” lab that works with human stem cells and brain tissue, a complement to Geschwind’s focus on informatics. She stayed in Boston for a year, longer than a visitor from a friendly lab would normally stay, to learn to grow neurons and other techniques. “She was in my lab for some time,” says Woolf.

Verge has licensed nothing from Harvard University, which runs Boston Children’s, and UCLA. Woolf and Geschwind say that’s not a point of contention. They wish Zhang and Verge well—“life is about self-realization,” says Geschwind—and they are thrilled that their ideas are being put to the test in a startup. But they’re not entirely happy with how it went down.

On his cell phone, Geschwind pauses to chastise a skateboarder … Next Page »

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