Tuesday, June 16, 2015
Science Differently: Biological Sciences Alumnus Glen de Vries and the Growth of Medidata
It’s the moment Glen de Vries hoped would come. Thanks to the persistence of one of his salesmen, a California biotech giant has agreed to listen to his pitch about the software of Medidata, a New York startup he cofounded. It’s the early 2000s, and de Vries’ fledgling company isn’t on the radar of many, especially in comparison to more established companies that have already been identified by the bigwigs at this particular biotech as obvious choices to provide an electronic platform for the company’s upcoming clinical trial. But the salesman got the proverbial foot in the door, and now de Vries—a buoyant sort of fellow with a hard-to-resist joie de vivre—has his chance.
To find out what Medidata software can do, the bigwigs assembled a team who find themselves sitting classroom style, a computer in front of each, for Day One of the presentation. They’re all on the corporate network, playing different roles in a simulated clinical trial—doctor, nurse, patient. In the beginning there are zero glitches, so much so that the biotech folks start creating increasingly difficult scenarios. Still, no problems. Someone points out that though everything works flawlessly on their high-powered corporate network, surely it wouldn’t go as smoothly on a typical modem. Unfazed, de Vries puts it to the test, then and there, grabbing a phone on the wall and somebody’s laptop. The software doesn’t flinch.
This meeting is the best demo I will ever do in my entire life, de Vries thinks to himself.
Day Two is meant to show off how the Medidata software is user friendly. Many competitors’ products require a fair amount of programming at the outset. But one of the attractions of the Medidata product is that you just go online, point, and click. At least in theory.
The presentation begins less than ideally when the salesman who got them the opportunity in the first place spills a full cup of Starbucks coffee over the biotech’s chief information officer. An omen? Nothing in the demonstration ends up working as it should. Day Two is Day One’s antithesis.
Afterwards, in the parking lot, de Vries can’t make eye contact with anyone. He’s so unhappy. This is the end of our company, he’s thinking. Our software is so cool, and this was our one chance to get a big client, and we completely screwed it up. But the head of the sales staff pulls them together and says, “Guys, we’ve got this. Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to go back to New York and fix everything that was broken. Then we’re going to send it to the team we’ve just been meeting with, and they can go online and play with it on their own.”
And that’s what they do. As it turns out, even with the broken demo, the company has a sense of what the software can do. “They wound up building their own simulated study and playing with it. I think they were so impressed by how well it worked, when it did work,” de Vries recalls. “They saw the level of effort that we put in, and that kind of tenacity to say, ‘OK, even though we blew it, we’re going to make it right.’ And they ended up selecting us. It was our first enterprise client.”
De Vries tells that story every time new hires come to headquarters for orientation. “It’s a good lesson in what made Medidata successful over the years,” he says. “It’s a combination of tenacity, humility about when you get stuff wrong, and the kind of teamwork that it takes to really make things right.” From those humble beginnings, Medidata has grown into a force to be reckoned with. Its annual revenue is in the neighborhood of $400 million. It employs roughly 1,300 people; its software is being used in more than 100 countries; and Medidata has supported more than 9,000 clinical trials. “It’s hard for me to fathom,” says de Vries, “but something around half of all the research done on drugs and medical devices on the planet is done on our platform.” Lesson: Don’t cry over spilt coffee.
Running an international technology and data analytics company is not what de Vries thought he would end up doing. He always liked building things and taking them apart. His parents could put him in a room by himself with some Legos, and they wouldn’t hear a peep from him. When he was a little older, he’d spend days and nights programming on early computers—a Commodore and an Apple II. That led to an interest in science when he was in high school. “I had a couple of amazing science teachers, and I went through a period of wanting to be a physicist and wanting to be a chemist,” he says. “To me, this was how you took apart the universe and put it back together.”
When he enrolled in Carnegie Mellon in 1990, he started to focus on biology. “I realized that one of the most interesting things to take apart and put back together was living things—not literally.” The summer after freshman year, he worked in a lab. He remembers the triumph he felt the first time he got a colony of bacteria that he was taking care of to do something different biologically than it should. “It was so exciting to me!” he says. “If you had asked me that summer what I would be doing in 25 years, I would have told you that I would be happily teaching biology at a university somewhere, somewhere on the East Coast, because I’m a New Yorker, and studying some kind of cancer or virus.”
The reason his career ladder ended up planted a bit to the side of that vocation began innocently with a telephone call. During his junior year at Carnegie Mellon, he needed to make some pocket change. He took a job at Alumni House, calling for the telefund. He hit it off with one of the alums on the other end of the line, a young attending physician at Columbia University, Aaron Katz (S’82). De Vries, who was trying to figure out what he wanted to do after graduation, visited Katz at Columbia the next time he was home, which led to him being introduced to some of Katz’ colleagues. By the time de Vries graduated in 1994, he had a job waiting for him, working on a research project at Columbia.
A better way to stage prostate cancer, based on a blood assay that was molecular in nature, was the focus of the research. The project, which generated significant interest in the urology/oncology community, was led by the department chair at Columbia, who was also the head of the respected surgical association in the area. “A lot of people wanted to collaborate with what we were doing, and it rolled downhill to me to figure out how to collect and manage all this data that we needed to run a study with other hospitals and universities,” says de Vries.
All of those days and nights he played around with computers as a teenager would now be put to good use. He started looking for software that he could use to assemble what he needed to run this collaborative clinical study. “Lo and behold, there was nothing,” he says. “There was nothing at Columbia. There was nothing from the pharmaceutical companies that we collaborated with in other research.” But across the lab bench from de Vries was a surgical resident, Ed Ikeguchi, who was kind of like de Vries—not a trained engineer, but somebody who had always been a computer hobbyist.
Why is there no software that is good at overseeing clinical trials, they wondered? These were still the earlier days of the internet. (Netscape 3.0 was just in beta.) “Could we do these clinical trials—ones that look at new medical ideas, evaluate safety and efficacy; or in the case of diagnostic trials, evaluate sensitivity and specificity—could we do it in a way that nobody has done before?”
That idea gestated for de Vries while he continued to gain practical experience playing with systems at the hospital and thinking about clinical research. Then, in 1999, de Vries and Ikeguchi decided the time had come.
“I was living in a fifth-floor walkup in Manhattan at the time,” he recalls. We took the bed out of my tiny bedroom, and we put it in the living room, turning my tiny one-bedroom into an even tinier studio and minuscule office. And after work, on weekends, Ed and I would hang out together and play with these ideas that became the first software that Medidata made.”
Around this time, one of their colleagues at Columbia played matchmaker. After pointing out that neither de Vries nor Ikeguchi knew anything about running a business or making money, he put them in touch with a friend, Tarek Sherif, an investor who focused on technology and had dabbled in the clinical research space. As both de Vries and Sherif put it, it was business love at first sight.
“We met after work, thanks to this mutual friend who didn’t, I think, understand what Tarek even did. He had been investing in companies on the way into the dot-com bubble, in a very smart way. He actually knew a little bit about the clinical trial industry,” de Vries says. “We hit it off. It was easy to talk. We had no idea how we were going to work together. But we just kept talking, every day. And then a couple of months later, it was like, ‘Why don’t we move in together?’”
“Home,” by this time, was a less-than-enviable office building in midtown Manhattan. But as company origin stories go, this one was great. Sherif took his desk chair from his old office, put his CRT on top of it and a file cabinet on top of that, and rolled it about a mile down New York City streets, to where de Vries and Ikeguchi had set up shop. “He rolled this pile of stuff into an elevator and ultimately across the desk from where I was sitting,” de Vries says. “We have literally sat in the same room for 15 years now.”
Sherif remembers thinking it would be a lot of fun to work with de Vries. “Glen is a very gentle soul—a good person, ethical, high integrity, and very happy. He’s very upbeat on things, doesn’t spend a lot of time over-thinking things that go wrong or things that happened in the past. He’s got the raw intellect, the curiosity about things, but he blends that with a very down-to-earth approach to things as well.”
Says de Vries, “I thought I was going to spend my life fascinated by one gene or one virus. I am incredibly lucky because now I get to think about oncology, and cardiology, and endocrinology, and infectious disease—you name the therapeutic area.”
And Sherif adds that “Medidata is now bringing data analytics and artificial intelligence into play. That gives us a leg up, not just against competition, but it actually helps our customers do the science differently.”
De Vries believes the company can help the healthcare and drug industry do better science. “We can observe things at scales that an individual can’t look at, with algorithms that are more interesting because of the amount of information that we can put into them,” he says. “We’re at this intersection of biological technology and information technology, and the more and more connected world, and it is incredibly exciting!”
So 15 years after de Vries thought a spilled cup of coffee would signal the demise of his company, Medidata is now keeping track of more than 8 billion clinical records for more than 2 million patients, with 1,400 more patients being entered into its systems daily.
By: Sally Ann Flecker
Photo: Courtesy of G. De Vries
Sally Ann Flecker is a Pittsburgh-based, award-winning freelance writer who is a regular contributor to this magazine.