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Good News: NIH Discovers Data Scientists and The Private Sector

Shaywitz 2.oLate last month, President Obama unveiled a $215 million Precision Medicine initiative, which has won early bipartisan support. The centerpiece of this proposal is an ambitious effort to integrate disparate clinical datasets to advance science and improve health.  The question now is whether the National Institute of Health officials entrusted to carry out this program will seize this opportunity to leverage the thinking and experiences of the entrepreneurs, engineers, and data scientists from the private sector who have been wrestling these sorts of challenges to the ground.  The early indications are encouraging.

(Disclosure/reminder: I work at a cloud-enabled genomic data management company in Mountain View, California.)

Data is the organizing principle of Silicon Valley; the landscape is dotted with companies – from behemoths like FacebookGoogle GOOGL -0.99%, Salesforce, and Palantir to younger entrants like ours – devoted to collecting, analyzing, and collaborating around huge amounts of data, often enabled by cloud computing.

The same engineers who gave us photo sharing, Angry Birds, and smart thermostats are increasingly bringing their talents to healthcare, trying to enable health data sharing, motivate healthy behaviors, and empower elders living at home alone.

Entrepreneurs developing these so-called digital health technologies raised in excess of $4B from investors in 2014, according to Rock Health, more than double the previous year’s haul.

Obama was catapulted into office with the help of Silicon Valley data scientists, and created the role of the U.S. Chief Technology Officer (CTO).  This position was first held by Aneesh Chopra, a former managing director of the healthcare firm The Advisory Board; subsequently held by AthenaHealth co-founder Todd Park; and is now owned by Google veteran Megan Smith.

This month, Smith was joined by Silicon Valley veteran DJ Patil, who coined the term data scientist and now serves as chief data scientist in residence at the White House.

The Office of Science and Technology Policy, in which the CTO sits, is staffed by a number of tech veterans, and as a coordinator of the recent White House Precision Medicine announcement, presumably played a role in including a number of representatives from the growing community of digital health entrepreneurs.
In contrast, the initial information coming out of the NIH seemed concerning.  The agenda for the first NIH event associated with the Precision Medicine initiative – a meeting this week focused on cohort assembly, data integration, and mobile technology – included one industry expert (Peter Tippett of Verizon), plus a consultant, Dixie Baker, with industry experience.

However, a more complete participant list has now been posted, and the news is relatively encouraging; the list includes representatives from well-known tech companies, including Google, Apple, Intel, 23andMe, and PatientsLikeMe.   While more expansive representation from the tech community would have been better (and keep in mind, the vast majority of participants are from the NIH or academia), at least inclusion is a start.

Historically, the NIH has tended to frame even large projects as traditional research problems, best solved by convening distinguished academic leaders, rather than conceptualizing the challenges more broadly, as mission-oriented partnerships, like the space program, best approached by robust public and private engagement.

Contrast this mindset with that of many patients (and patient representatives), who increasingly find themselves organizing their own search for treatments and cures, and who invariably seek the best minds they can find.  Some of these experts are in academia or the NIH, but many turn out to be in industry; hard-won experience translating promise into product tends to be especially prized by those most motivated to find pragmatic solutions.

Bringing the best of public and private sector together is also very much the philosophy advocated by leading non-profit organizations promoting medical data sharing, including HL7 and the Global Alliance for Genomics and Health (my company is a member), as well as by former UCSF Chancellor Susan Desmond-Hellmann, no doubt informed by her years of experience developing cancer drugs at Genentech.  (A champion of precision medicine as well as constructive university/industry engagement, Desmond-Hellmann is currently CEO of the Gates Foundation.)

The evolution of precision medicine in general, and in the creation of integrated data sets in particular, will unquestionably benefit from tech industry expertise – and the private sector, by and large, has already figured this out.  There’s perhaps no more compelling example than Craig Venter’s Human Longevity Inc., which began developing its own integrated health database a year or so ago, raised $70M in initial funding (equivalent to more than half the funds the Precision Medicine initiative plans to allocate to the integrated data project), and promptly hired Franz Och, the mastermind behind Google Translate, as Chief Data Scientist.

The worthy and ambitious goals of the Precision Medicine initiative provide a new opportunity for the NIH to transcend a legacy of disdain for innovation “Not Invented Here.”   The project’s leaders should actively solicit tech industry expertise and perspective — not as a gesture of inclusion, not as means to secure conference sponsorships, but rather due to the authentic recognition that solving hard problems requires the most talented people, and some of America’s very best are found in industry.

It’s tremendously heartening to see that the NIH has begun to get the message.

David Shaywitz is based in Mountain View, California. He is Chief Medical Officer at DNAnexus, a Mountain View based company.

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