In an acute case of a music major gone awry, Howard Cash conducts a runaway-success bioinformatics company — but doesn’t let his achievements go to his head
By Meredith W. Salisbury
Paul Morrison remembers it as a Pepto-Bismol week. It was November, 1993, and the director of the molecular biology core facilities at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute was helping with a paper on the MSH2 human colon-cancer gene. He needed a certain chart, and the program he’d bought for sequence assembly couldn’t produce the right data. Instead of panicking, he picked up the phone.
Howard Cash, president of Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Gene Codes and author of the popular Sequencher assembly program, won’t forget that week either. “I got a call Wednesday afternoon about MSH2,” he recalls. It was Morrison, asking if Cash could add a new feature to the program. One minor detail: the results were due for publication that Friday.
“I wrote a one-off,” Cash says. And then he raced it to the overnight delivery plane at the Detroit airport because the pickup deadline had come and gone.
Morrison still marvels. “Howard had a FedEx package in my lab the next day. We changed the tables and got them in Thursday night.”
Dana-Farber got credit for the cancer gene in the next issue of Cell, but it was Howard Cash who took such delight in the project that he got the MSH2 readout printed in bright colors as the pattern in his office carpet.
Pride and Progress
Cash, who founded Gene Codes in 1988, is proud of all his customers’ projects. Some 30 notes posted in the office kitchen attest to the varied applications for Sequencher — from salmon pathogens to fungal systematics to body identification. Cubicle walls around the office are covered with clippings about Sequencher success stories.
Cash’s focus on customers is legendary in the field. Judy Nolan, informatics product manager at Applied Biosystems (which released a new Sequencher-compatible BioLIMS in 1999), recalls meeting him at a conference a few years ago, when she was struck by the crowd and loud applause at his customer meeting. “I thought, ‘That’s pretty enthusiastic for a user meeting,’” Nolan says, “and somebody said, ‘Well, that’s Howard Cash.’” (He’s just about as famous for his Congo African Gray parrot, Ripley, who often attends conferences with him.)
“Most of the best ideas have come from our customers,” says Cash, who continually encourages users to send in suggestions for improvement. Also, whenever possible, he videotapes people using new versions of the program to test added or changed features. “By the time they get to the third menu, you know that something isn’t where they expected it to be,” he says.
He’s so eager to get the dish on his product that he carries an extra set of business cards without his title because he’s found people are more likely to offer criticism if they don’t know he’s the president. In the office, too, it would be almost impossible to guess his position. Vickie Bair, Gene Codes’ new vice president of operations, says, “Howard takes technical support calls. He has no problem pitching in.”
Cash has been in the field long enough to remember the early days of bioinformatics. Back when Gene Codes started, most companies sold suites of genomics tools instead of standalone programs.
“At some point, you have to break away from what everyone in the field agrees is the norm,” he says. This competitive streak — evidenced by 18 years of fencing, culminating in Olympic-level training — drove him to crank out Sequencher, a program recommended for assembly of sequences as long as BACs or for comparative sequencing. Now used at major sequencing centers as well as smaller labs for assembly, editing, vector screening, and restriction mapping, among other functions, Morrison calls it the “best package out there, bar none.”
With about 10,000 users and 22 employees, Gene Codes is now in its 32nd profitable quarter. Revenues are consistently higher than $4 million, and increase at least 25 percent each year.
Even with results like these, Cash doesn’t focus on the money: “I don’t have a burning desire to become a multimillionaire.”
He has no intention of taking his company public, and he’s more comfortable giving away money than amassing it. For Gene Codes’ tenth anniversary, Cash took the $25,000 bonus that was coming to him and spent $19,000 of it treating his staff and their spouses to a five-day vacation in Jamaica.
Even when he tries spending on himself, it doesn’t come easily. The 41-year-old bachelor bought his first house last December. “It was my New Year’s resolution for four years running,” he says ruefully.
“There’s no reason in the world I should’ve ended up in this field,” Cash reflects. He began his studies in music at the University of Pennsylvania before leaving to work as an assistant conductor in Philadelphia. He later returned to his degree at Stanford, where he used SAIL (Stanford Artificial Intelligence Language) to study computer models of acoustics in auditoriums.
Afterward, the now defunct IntelliGenetics recruited Cash because of his proficiency with SAIL. “Molecular biology was the sexiest thing I’d ever seen in my life,” he says. He took advantage of the company’s flexible hours, working from 4 a.m. to 2 p.m. most days, to sit in on science classes at Stanford in the afternoons.
After a stint at an automotive robotics company, Cash returned to biotech by founding Gene Codes. Even the music background came into play: “Conducting an orchestra is the best training I could’ve gotten for working with engineers,” he says. They’re all intelligent enough to do things on their own, but the measure of success lies in getting everyone in harmony.
Not that he claims to be a maestro. His management style is as unassuming as his office, where two Japanese art prints show how Cash envisions himself. In one, he’s “steering a big ship through a storm with just a stick,” and in the other, “fighting off the competition.” Above these is his motto: Ne Sim Obex, “let me not be an obstacle.”
During a business plan presentation years ago, someone asked Cash what he’d do if he weren’t at Gene Codes. He knew the answer was supposed to be, ‘start another company.’ Now, he says he’ll probably focus on policy implications of genomics.
But at the presentation, he didn’t mince words. Though he loves his job, he said, “There’s just no way in the world I would ever do this again. I’m glad I got to do it once — most people don’t.”