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A Noggin for Networks

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Roland Somogyi walked away from Incyte stock options and a California lifestyle for a job that lets him follow his bliss.

 

by Ron Rogers

 

At a watery crossroads, where the southernmost end of the Rideau Canal meets Lake Ontario at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, sits the scenic town of Kingston, Ontario. It’s an unlikely home for an upstart bioinformatics company, but the grandeur of the place, surrounded by an abundance of natural beauty, seems well suited to Roland Somogyi, chief scientific officer at Molecular Mining.

“I always wondered how things in nature are connected,” says the 38-year-old scientist who lists skiing, hiking, and backpacking among his hobbies. “Today, I ask the same questions about human biology.”

Somogyi is obsessed with solving one of biology’s most difficult problems: how genes work together in complex networks. “Understanding and predicting the behavior of gene networks is my passion,” he says. “Genes don’t operate independently. Multiple genes work together.”

In his usual business-casual attire and collar-length hair, Somogyi projects neither the image of a modern-day gold prospector nor of a scholarly genius, but friends and colleagues describe him as both. Marc Fels, a friend of Somogyi’s since high school, concedes that his pal is “confident” but adds, “I don’t think he considers himself a great scientist. He thinks and talks about himself as more of an explorer.”

Somogyi brings an intellectual depth and interest in philosophical issues that seems to have disappeared from science over the last few generations, says Evan Steeg, chief executive officer at Molecular Mining. The CEO considers his CSO a visionary. “He was one of the first scientists to look at how genes work together in networks. He started doing that even before there were tools to do it,” Steeg says.

Even so, Somogyi admits some distress at the complexity of the problems he is trying to solve. He is driven by a belief that questions he could answer are the most important in medical research today. “We’ve suffered from a lack of good tools capable of analyzing complex nonlinear problems,” he says. “We need to develop the tools that will help us understand gene networks before we’ll see real breakthroughs in medicine.”

Somogyi’s reputation as a creative data miner has been rising since the 1990s, when he served as a principal investigator in the Laboratory of Neurophysiology at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. At NIH, he developed methods for high-fidelity, high-throughput gene expression data acquisition and exploratory data mining and visualization.

His ascent, however, hasn’t been friction free. In 1998, Somogyi moved his NIH research team across the country to Incyte Genomics, where he became director of neurobiology, using gene expression data to reverse-engineer gene networks. But within two years he split.

Some were surprised to see him abandon the biomedical millionaires’ haven of Palo Alto and Incyte’s copious stock options to join Molecular Mining, an obscure Queen’s University spinoff with few funds and no marketed products. And in Canada no less. What was he thinking?

Says CEO Steeg, “Two caricature extremes might spring to mind: Roland as the head-in-the-clouds intellectual fanatically chasing scientific purity without regard to such mundane trivialities as money or functioning business organizations, or Roland as the high-priced mercenary lured away from Incyte by Machiavellian Evan with piles and piles of filthy lucre.”

But Somogyi laughs at those notions and Steeg says the truth is less juicy: “Roland and I have long shared a scientific vision that has both inherent mathematical elegance and potentially immense biomedical and commercial value. We’re committing resources at Molecular Mining to implement this vision and reap the value. Incyte wasn’t doing this—it wasn’t their immediate business priority, but it is ours.”

Somogyi agrees, “My decision surprised some of my colleagues and friends. Incyte certainly is a great company, but Molecular Mining shares the vision I am trying to build.”

And to dispel any misconceptions that his intentions are completely altruistic, Somogyi notes that he hopes to reap the commercial value of his vision. If successful, Molecular Mining’s tools will be treasured by biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies starving for tools that can not only find important genes but, more importantly, predict the function of genes and proteins.

After receiving a PhD in biophysics from the University of Konstanz, Germany, in 1989, Somogyi says he found his calling while working in Switzerland as a post-doctoral fellow with the Pharmacological Institute at the University of Bern. It was there that he developed his interest in solving highly complex problems.

But he is quick to point out that his vision is not his alone. He credits others including neural net guru Stuart Kauffman at the Santa Fe Institute and Steeg, his boss, with developing theories and ideas about how to solve complex gene networks problems.

Friends say that Somogyi is as passionate about life as he is about science: he is devoted to family time with his wife Jeannette, whom he met on a month-long trip to Italy when he was 16, and their 18-month- old son. Those who know him also remark upon Somogyi’s culinary skills. Fels warns, “You have to be careful because he makes very spicy meals.”

As long as he is sticking to science, Somogyi hopes his legacy will be to see his ideas manifest themselves as practical applications that will improve human health. But he adds, “If I wasn’t a scientist, I’d be hosting a television cooking show.”

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