Sage Bionetworks Absorbs Dream, Plans Open Science ‘Challenges’

Xconomy Seattle — 

Sage Bionetworks is a nonprofit, so it isn’t in the business of doing mergers and acquisitions in the traditional sense. But today it’s completing a merger of sorts that will enable it to expand its reach on the Web.

Sage, the Seattle-based nonprofit working to spark an open-source biology movement, is announcing today it will be working together from now on with the all-volunteer Dialogue on Reverse Engineering Assessment and Methods (DREAM) project.

The online community project, founded in 2006 by Andrea Califano of Columbia University and Gustavo Stolovitzky of IBM Research in Yorktown Heights, NY, has grown up into a successful platform for mobilizing informal teams of scientists around tough biology and translational medicine problems. The group recently ran one such crowdsourced “challenge” for breast cancer research that drew 1,700 participants from more than 40 countries, says Sage co-founder and president Stephen Friend.

Open challenges of this sort, which recognize people for their contributions through real-time online “leaderboards,” are considered one way to reward scientists who traditionally were recognized mostly when they kept experimental data hidden from others and got it published in a peer-reviewed journal. Sage Bionetworks, founded in 2009, has argued that the old reward structures aren’t good enough anymore, and the biomedical research community needs become much more open and collaborative if it’s going to make more headway in the treatment of disease.

Stephen Friend

The DREAM project, started a few years earlier in 2006, is now composed of about 10 people who share a similar mission with Sage, Stolovitzky says. The group has learned over time how to create challenges, score them, and engage effectively with scientists from different backgrounds, Stolovitzky says.

Sage has shown an interest in creating scientific challenges, but doesn’t have the track record of Dream. Instead of running separate, competing challenges, the two groups thought it would be better to work together, Stolovitzky says. The merger makes sense for Dream, he says, because Sage has nonprofit status that enables it to raise money; it has a strong network of collaborators; a team of full-time employees; some rich genomic datasets; and a growing technology platform that can host future challenges. If Dream wanted to “take our challenges to the next level,” then it would have had to consider how to convert from an all-volunteer organization into a nonprofit with infrastructure like Sage has, Stolovitzky says.

“We realized we both care about the same things, so why should we have Sage over here doing one thing, and Dream over there doing another?” Friend says.

Over the next year, the Sage and Dream groups plan to work together on at least four new challenges to the scientific community. One will be focused on brain tumors, and another on breast cancer, Friend says. Sage plans to say more about the various challenges, and how they fit into its overall strategy, at is annual Sage Commons Congress in San Francisco on April 19 and 20.