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

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cruising down the sidewalk outside his office. He then explains that leaving a PhD program can be a disruption to others in the lab counting on the departee’s work. A lab leader—a principal investigator or “PI” in lab-speak—is always balancing the need to be an educator and mentor and the need to finish work funded by outside agencies, Geschwind says.

When Zhang decided to start Verge, she asked both Woolf and Geschwind, her dissertation advisors, to help, with company stock as the compensation. They checked their universities’ rules and decided they could not. It’s not uncommon for a professor to start a company and ask his trainees to join. But there is little precedent to manage the potential conflict of a student asking her professor to join. At first, they weren’t sure what Zhang and her cofounder Jason Chen, also a Geschwind lab member, were going after, says Geschwind, “so we decided to recuse ourselves.”

Zhang doesn’t think she could have done anything differently but says, “I’m sad about it. I wish we could have gotten them cleared and have them more actively involved. No two better people could be advising us in this area.”

When Zhang and Chen told Geschwind that Y Combinator had accepted Verge into its program, Geschwind says asked what the company was working on. “When she said ‘network analysis,’ I said, ‘That’s interesting.’ We gave them a structure, a way of thinking about things, and I’m really happy to see those methods used to develop a product,” he says.

“Everyone is in favor of the entrepreneurial side,” says Woolf. “We’re training people to have those skills and motivation. In her case, the only unusual thing was doing it in middle of her PhD program. We need to find the ground rules. We need to find a way to manage this new culture of entrepreneurship.”

Woolf approaches the problem philosophically: If the startup didn’t license technology from their labs, should there still be some consideration for the atmosphere—“the lectures she was attending” and so forth—and the knowledge gained? “It’s a complicated issue, and perhaps unresolvable,” says Woolf.

Could it become a more common situation? For young academic scientists, the job landscape seems grim, and groups like the Future of Research are stumping for biomedical research reform. Advocates notched an important win last month when the Department of Labor changed its overtime payment rules to benefit post-docs, but will student researchers like Zhang wait around for more reform? Techies like Peter Thiel are paying kids not to go to college. Grassroots groups are forming to explore biohacking outside traditional educational settings. “Dan and I say we’re living in a new era,” says Woolf. “The Silicon Valley adventure is spreading into the biomedical world.”

It’s too early to say whether Verge Genomics will succeed, or whether, as Alice Zhang and others believe, software algorithms will help usher new treatments for intractable neurodegenerative diseases. The rhetoric on Verge’s website comes off as premature, if not miscalibrated: “We find new cures for brain diseases 1000X more cheaply and quickly using our proven network algorithms,” one blurb reads.

Zhang says the claim stems from initial proof of concept studies that identified potentially useful compounds at a much higher rate than previous studies—a far cry from “cures.” Chalk it up to a little overzealous marketing, perhaps. But in Zhang’s low-key delivery, one can find a bit of data-centricity—some might call it a tinge of arrogance—that software in the end will sort out the messiness of human brains. Not just those of patients with neurological diseases, but those of researchers as well.

“Scientists are very biased,” she says, because they look for answers in the biological pathways they’ve spent their careers studying. “Our approach is unbiased, we go into the raw data and look at the correlation between genes. We’re trying to take out the serendipity.”

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