Sage Bionetworks was founded in 2009 as a non-profit research organization but has a lineage dating back to 1994, when Stephen Friend and Lee Hartwell launched the “Seattle Project” at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center.
The Seattle Project’s purpose was to link genetics and drug discovery, based on the assumption that pattern recognition could allow researchers to intuit cellular activity directly from data as opposed to using hypothesis-driven, narrative approaches to biology.
By 1997 the Seattle Project evolved into Rosetta Inpharmatics, a for-profit company with the same mission. Rosetta was one of the first, and most successful, bioinformatics startups matching genetic variation and function to drug response, and was sold to Merck in 2001 for over $660 million. Merck integrated the Rosetta approach across the global pharmaceutical enterprise, and Dr. Friend served as Merck’s global head of cancer research.
By 2008, Drs. Friend and Schadt made a series of proposals to Merck’s senior leadership to create an open approach to linking genetics and drug discovery through pattern recognition. One of the original presentations is archived here for posterity. The estimated cost to Merck would have been approximately $300M, but would only have created a short term competitive advantage. Thus Merck was willing to instead allow the founders to convert the computational approaches pioneered there into a global biomedical research commons. Thanks to Merck’s generosity, we were able to negotiate the exit of key patents, software, data, hardware, and staff into the launch of Sage Bionetworks. Together with the support of founding contributors the Cure Huntington’s Disease Initiative Foundation, an anonymous donor, Quintiles, and the Canary Foundation, Sage was launched.