Martin Leach's 16-year interview for the job of Big Data boss at Biogen Idec

Martin Leach

Martin Leach has spent the past several months building a new data sciences group at Biogen Idec ($BIIB), where his team of informatics and tech pros has undertaken the sizable task of enabling scientists and others at the biotech powerhouse to make use of Big Data.

Leach began work as vice president of R&D IT at Biogen in January, following a year and a half spent as chief information officer of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, one of the foremost centers of genomics research in the world. With over a dozen petabyes of data to manage at Broad, Leach worked closely with Big Data and all the challenges that come with the monstrous datasets.

Biogen courted Leach for his new gig last year. Yet one could argue that Leach's journey to his current position began in the latter half of the 1990s when he was wrapping up a doctorate in pharmacology and experimental therapeutics at Boston University. While at BU, Leach took a contract job from the biotech CuraGen, then-led by the genomics maverick Jonathan Rothberg, to develop an informatics system that the company used to sweeten a partnership deal with Biogen. Biogen gladly accepted the software, and Leach, who got his Ph.D. in 1997, went on to run informatics at CuraGen.

About 16 years later, the biotech world has undergone dramatic changes in the use of informatics and IT amid a steep rise in the growth and volume of research data for companies to analyze and understand. Blame people like Rothberg. Leach's former CuraGen boss has led two DNA sequencing companies, 454 Life Sciences, which was sold to Roche ($RHHBY), and more recently Ion Torrent, which Life Technologies ($LIFE) purchased. Those outfits helped to dramatically drive down the cost of decoding DNA over the past decade, spurring explosive growth in genomics data. (CuraGen was sold to Celldex in a 2009 stock deal valued at $94.5 million after Leach and others had moved on to other companies.)

Weston, MA-based Biogen, which is the world leader in providing drugs for multiple sclerosis, has been investing in genomics research to peel back layers of complexity in the mysterious neurodegenerative disorder called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig's disease. Beyond ALS, Biogen has one of biggest R&D efforts in biotech and massive amounts of data to manage in the process of advancing new therapies to market and through commercialization. Needless to say, the company has an interest in making the most of Big Data.

Enter Leach, who reports to Biogen CIO Ray Pawlicki but reigns over an evolving strategy for how to approach the IT piece of data challenges at the company. He comes to the job with the background at Broad as well as post-CuraGen posts at Booz Allen Hamilton and U.S. drug giant Merck ($MRK).

"Building is always better than maintaining," Leach told FierceBiotech IT during a recent interview in Boston. "So I've been asked to build in addition to setting the direction and strategy for R&D IT."

Like other biotech companies, Biogen has a growing menu of options for analyzing and managing large-scale data. Leach and his data sciences group aim to serve as internal experts on which software tools, technologies and external partners to use for the company's data-crunching needs.

"Everyone and their sister will tell you that they've got a machine-learning approach or Bayesian networks or causal reasoning with mathematical methods to go do this," Leach said. "But you need someone with internal expertise that allows you to get the wheat from the chaff so you know that this is the right method or the right company to work with."

Biogen has been in the process of switching from paper-based lab records to electronic lab notebooks, Leach said. He wants the system to become more than "an electronic filing cabinet." When a researcher uses the electronic notebook to work on a particular problem, for example, Leach wants the system to automatically show her a panel of related publications and experiments. "It's so much like Google Search," he added.

Leach is also a big fan of infusing the concept of social tagging--think Facebook "Likes" and the "Plus One" button from Google--in the realm of biotech research.

"I think social tagging is going to be important," Leach said. "It's probably going to be even more important when it comes to annotation and curation of metadata. So social tagging is probably going to be more important in the context of biotech."

With services such as Elsevier's Mendeley, researchers can use "social bookmarking" to raise the profile of certain publications and make the articles stand out from the glut of information available to scientists. Leach likes the idea of embedding social tagging in enterprise software such as an electronic lab notebook as well.

A long-time player of video games, Leach has spoken out in favor of infusing elements of competition and video games into the R&D game. He tipped his hat to the online memory games Biogen offers to MS patients via a website for the MS community. And he's mulling the use of a leader board that would show which Biogen researchers have uploaded the most content to their electronic lab notebooks.

Some of Leach's ambitions for Big Data at Biogen stand at the idea phase as he beefs up on the overall strategy for the company and the best role for his data group. And don't expect him to talk much with non-IT coworkers about the complex IT underpinnings of the Big Data puzzle he is assembling at the company.

Providing all the heavy tech details, he said, is "going to bore the pants off of any researcher you try to describe it to." -- Ryan McBride email | Twitter