SpreadingScience, Web 2.0 Startup for Biologists, Aims To Get Drugmakers Talking

Xconomy Seattle — 

Richard Gayle is one of those rare individuals who can really carry a conversation with a molecular biologist and a software developer. He’s a Caltech-trained biochemist, with 16 years of experience at Seattle-based Immunex. While doing his wet-lab experiments, he built that company’s first Intranet in the early 1990s. Why? To make it easier for scientists to kick around ideas, at least when the company got too big to fit inside a local pub.

Teamwork among scientists with complementary skills is seen as so vital to drug development that Immunex (later bought by Amgen) spent more than $600 million for a campus along Seattle’s Elliott Bay, specifically to foster more face-to-face interactions that could lead to Eureka! moments. Yet when it comes to online interactions, despite the fact that Facebook and others are now bringing networking to new heights, Gayle sees that biotech and pharmaceutical companies still can’t figure out how to exploit the technology.

“This idea is probably still a year or two away,” Gayle says.

Unless Gayle, 52, has his way. He has been pushing online social networking for biologists through a Seattle startup he formed in April called SpreadingScience. He doesn’t have a product to sell yet, but that will come later, he says. So far, he is concentrating on drumming up interest—with some success—in a road show he’s planning for later in the year to explain the concept, and its potential benefits.

It’s a bit surprising that large biotech and pharmaceutical companies, with researchers spread around the world, have been slow to embrace internal blogs, wikis, or commercial software to foster better brainstorming, Gayle says. Computer giant IBM has. Even physicians, notorious for being late adopters of technology, are starting to embrace social networking through sites like Sermo and IMedExchange to find a colleague who can help answer a question. Yet the drug industry, which threw an estimated $44.5 billion last year into research and development, still doesn’t exploit in-house social networking that might help it speed up the process or cut the failure rate, which still stands at 9 out of 10 drug candidates that enter clinical trials.

Cultural barriers are one big reason. Secrecy is prized in an industry where patents are essential to commanding monopoly pricing power on drugs, which, in turn, are essential to attracting investors to such a risky business. Many companies are afraid that by sharing ideas too broadly, even in-house, competitors will find a way to steal them. Some biologists are simply embarrassed to let their peers know how often their experiments fail, Gayle said.

“It’s really hard to share without going over the line of divulging secrets, that’s the problem,” says Martin Simonetti, CEO of VLST, a venture-backed biotech startup in Seattle.

Gayle is convinced that biologists need to adopt the new technology, because in an era when the entire human genome is in the open, there is too much information for an individual, or even small group inside a company, to sort through it efficiently. Larger teams of people inside a company need to set aside their secrecy culture, and share more information to work better together, he says. Even in the era of instant communications, it’s still common in large drug companies to have two teams of scientists in different parts of the world doing unnecessary work on the same drug without even knowing it, he says.

Besides eliminating that waste, Gayle says companies could reap big benefits by exploiting the “Weak-Ties” hypothesis first stated by Anatol Rapaport in 1957. At a biotech company, an example would be when the biochemist from the other side of the building sees the protein engineer he barely knows on his way to the water fountain, and they have an impromptu discussion that leads to a new experiment. Those interactions don’t have to be chance encounters, they can be harnessed on the Internet, Gayle says.

“You get your greatest ideas from people you don’t see every day,” Gayle says. “You can be in different places and different times and still collaborate. It’s about transferring information that allows people to make better decisions. I don’t know a scientist in the world who discovered anything without interacting with other people.”

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