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Former Glaxo Exec Takes Helm of Molecular Applications to Broaden Business Mandate

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PALO ALTO, Calif.--On April 21, Myra Williams, a long-time pharmaceutical executive with a strong scientific background in bioinformatics, was named president and CEO of bioinformatics software developer Molecular Applications Group. She recently sat down for an interview with BioInform about changes at Molecular Applications Group, her new career directions, trends in bioinformatics, and the challenges of leading a small, growing biotech company.

With a PhD in molecular biophysics from Yale and an undergraduate degree in physics and mathematics from Southern Methodist University, Williams had most recently served as vice-president of worldwide R&D information resources for Glaxo Wellcome. She was previously with Glaxo Inc. and Merck Research Laboratories, where she was executive director of information resources and strategic planning.

Molecular Applications Group was founded in 1993 by Michael Levitt and Christopher Lee, two researchers from Stanford. The company is funded by Medicus Venture Partners and Morgenthaler Venture Partners.

BioInform: What are your priorities in your new job?

Williams: We're evolving a broad strategy for the company. The company had already begun to shift from being more recognized on the molecular modeling side to bioinformatics, and we're continuing to develop that change in direction. The focus at least near-term is on mining the genome information.

We have a new product that will be going into beta test this summer that provides tremendous capabilities to scientists--not just bioinformaticists--in terms of automated retrieval of information about gene sequences, the integration of that information, analysis of it, and cross-validation of it, from a number of different sources. It presents that in a way that really takes advantage of a human's ability to do pattern recognition to begin to understand gene function.

A tremendous amount of data has been generated by the human genome initiative. Our focus is to try to help move from just the data collection side and the routine analysis of homology, to understanding its function, and even more importantly, to understanding how it might be related to human disease. So there are exciting opportunities for us. The company was already moving in that direction, but the perception in the outside world is that our focus was on going from gene sequence to structure and using that structure for functional clues. The real strength of the company in the past has been that the tools were designed for biologists as well as chemists to use, which was unusual for something like that, and that continues to be a strength. I have a very strong bias that it's scientific information that's important, not just chemistry information or biology, etc. All scientists need to be able to easily retrieve the information they need to provide new insights into their work. That is the strength of the company that we'll continue to build upon.

BioInform: Will there be a time when the software is so advanced companies won't need to hire bioinformatics specialists?

Williams: You'll always need the experts, no question. It's simply that today that expertise is in very, very short supply. The problems that we're facing in large part are still ones of research. Going from gene to function is something people are still striving to accomplish, and in fact the functional genomics companies have evolved to address that very need. We haven't even begun to tap the information of gene expression, gene regulation, the interaction of genes in causing disease, in biological pathways. That's going to continue to require the expert bioinformaticists, expert biometricians, the experts in the underlying biology and toxicology and drug metabolism. There is a lot of fundamental science that still needs to be done, and our plan is to work closely with the scientists to help evolve tools that help them succeed in that work. Our tools will improve, particularly in terms of their ease of use and having almost an expert system behind them that will guide the scientists in using them.

BioInform: What persuaded you to move from a top job with a large company to a completely different situation leading a small startup firm?

Williams: I had a wonderful job; I thoroughly enjoyed it. My job changed to an international role at the time of the merger of Glaxo with Wellcome, and because I was on the executive committee I had roughly 18 months to decide if the international role was really the one I wanted to keep for the rest of my career. I was living in London half the time, two-thirds of the staff was British, and it was fascinating, I loved having an opportunity to live in a different environment. My team was terrific.

Prior to the merger I was the chief information officer for Glaxo Inc. I had responsibility for R&D in the U.S., in terms of information technology, and information technology for all the other functional areas as well: manufacturing, human resources, commercial, etc. At the time of the merger my position broadened geographically and in terms of the number of people I managed, but it was purely R&D.

"It's probably more on the software side that we will need to make some technology decisions today that will anticipate where our customer base will be perhaps a year from now."

While it was exciting to be in an international environment, I missed the breadth of activities I had been part of in the U.S. operations, where we were actually creating new businesses in things like healthcare informatics, and broadening the overall mandate of the company. So the merger gave me an opportunity to step back and examine what I wanted to do in my career, and I realized that there were other things that were really quite interesting to me.

Glaxo Wellcome is a superb company, so it was a terribly difficult decision, but now I'm delighted that I made the choice I did, because in fact one of the things I had in mind was, I had always wanted to run a small company. But it would have to be one I could almost passionately believe in, because, of course, it's all-consuming to get involved in a small company, and I knew that, because I'd been on the boards of several. So when I left Glaxo Wellcome it was really with a clean sheet, not knowing if I would find that small company that I could be enthusiastic about, or whether I wanted to do consulting--I considered a partnership with one of the big six consulting houses--or did I want to go to another major company outside the pharmaceutical industry in more of a chief information officer role.

And it was the small company that won out. The quality of the science here, the quality of the computer sciences, the staff is small but they're just superb individuals. My excitement was really considerable after I had the initial interview.

I'm certainly learning new skills; there's no question about that. I had never had to worry about PR and marketing strategy and sales strategy and raising money. It's just fascinating. And I have superb backers, with Medicus and the Morgenthaler Group, I could not ask for people who have been more helpful but not intrusive. They have provided me guidance and leadership when I've asked for them, and I really have benefited from that.

One thing that was exciting about this company is that it takes advantage of virtually all of my previous skills: my knowledge base about how drugs are discovered, my knowledge base in general of bioinformatics and computer sciences, and my love for technology and science. It was just a wonderful blend of the things that I had been doing over the years, and yet it offered continued growth opportunities and the challenge of helping to shape a strategy that will be successful scientifically as well as commercially.

BioInform: How is your background in the pharmaceutical industry beneficial now?

Williams: There are a number of different areas that are of benefit. The first is having a very thorough understanding of what's required for drug discovery. Finding an active molecule is only the first step, and of course what we're trying to do now is to revolutionize how that discovery happens by making it a more rational process, understanding up front what is the genetic basis of the disease and being able to predict in advance which patients have that genetic defect and are likely to respond to a particular therapeutic approach. I understand the discovery process and it is very difficult, very time-consuming, and one where even with two of the best companies, Merck and Glaxo Wellcome, your overall probability of success is not very high. Humans are complex and they metabolize drugs differently. Drugs are toxic in some people and not in others, and you can't always predict whether or not your hypothesis is going to work in humans. So understanding the full nature of that process and how genomics may be relevant to drug discovery, to patient treatment, to really looking at outcomes of that treatment, is going to be a tremendous asset to Molecular Applications Group.

The other thing is that after having this many years in the industry, I simply have a wide network of people I've worked with who can give us insight into the way these things are being implemented; people who can hopefully in some cases provide potential partnerships for us. It's very important that we develop our software in partnership with some of the leaders, because that's the way we can be certain that what we are doing is truly relevant and will be useful in the scientific laboratories. So I think that network of contacts will be very valuable. And in like manner, since I've been involved in information technology for so many years, I have a similar network of contacts in the computer industry, because we need to know what is evolving in terms of computer technology, what are the things we need to be incorporating now, at least in our design concepts, so we can take advantage of that technology when it provides significant functional advances over things that we've done before.

The hardware isn't that much of a challenge. Because we're designing our systems to be compatible on multiple platforms, the hardware advances for the most part simply provide us a lot more computing power at less cost, and that is all positive. The evolution of software is a far more significant impact to us, because you need to be able to anticipate the role of the internet. Will people want to use Java-based applications? Some companies have been very reluctant to move in that area; others are saying we don't want anything if it's not Java-based. So those technology issues, such as relational database technology, object database technology, object-relational database technology, exactly what are the strengths and weaknesses of those? Where should they be utilized within our product set? It's probably more on the software side that we will need to make some technology decisions today that will anticipate where our customer base will be perhaps a year from now.

BioInform: You've had a very successful career. Does bioinformatics offer good opportunities for women?

Williams: I think science in general does. Probably even today, it is the one field where you are judged based upon the quality of your work, and that's through the kind of peer review process that occurs in scientific publications. If you're doing outstanding science it's very hard for that not to be recognized. So I was very wise in my choice of career early on, and I was also very wise in my choice of companies. Merck was extraordinary in providing me early in my career with the flexibility that was required to enable me to continue as a scientist, a mother, a wife of a very busy professional. It was an investment in my future, and one that I hope that they would feel paid off.

I don't believe, in either Merck or Glaxo Wellcome, that I was ever subject to discrimination based upon sex. I was just very lucky. On Bob Ingram's executive committee at Glaxo Wellcome there were two women out of a small group of perhaps eight, and we had one minority as well. The same thing was true with Jim Niedel, who is Glaxo Wellcome's worldwide head of research; he certainly had no biases based upon sex or race or age. It was really who are the people who have the commitment, the energy, the insight and the leadership skills--the teamwork ability--to be significant contributors to the organization. So the world of science provides tremendous opportunity to people of all races and sex, but secondly, picking one's company wisely is an asset.

--Virginia Hines

Coming in the next issue of BioInform:

Part 2 of our exclusive interview with Myra Williams. She discusses the challenge of funding for a small biotech company, Molecular Applications Group's new Scientific Advisory Board, the future of bioinformatics, bioinformatics and the internet, and more.

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