Pharma, Data Veteran Stephen Friend Bites At Apple’s Health Offer

Alex Lash | Xconomy | June 23, 2016

Consumer tech giant Apple, which has spent considerable effort positioning its products as health and fitness helpers, has just hired someone who knows Big Pharma and Big Data. Stephen Friend, a veteran of drug R&D and, more recently, a nonprofit effort to foster more collaborative biomedical research and more data sharing, is joining Apple (NYSE: AAPL) in an unspecified capacity. The news emerged today from Sage Bionetworks, the Seattle nonprofit that Friend founded after leaving drug giant Merck (NYSE: MRK), where he was a senior research executive for eight years. Friend joined Merck in 2001 when it bought his Seattle biotech Rosetta Inpharmatics, which used genetic analysis in drug research and development.

Sage posted a short announcement on its website today about its new president, Lara Mangravite, and noted that Friend will move from president to chairman of the board and no longer be responsible for daily operations. “Dr. Friend has accepted a position with Apple Inc. where he will work on health related projects,” the site says. The move is effective immediately, Sage director of strategic development Thea Norman confirmed to Xconomy. Norman said she did not know the specifics of Friend’s new job. Friend and Apple representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

Friend’s move to Apple is not out of the blue. Under Friend, Sage has been a major contributor to Apple’s ResearchKit initiative, which allows iPhone users to share personal health data with medical researchers. It’s part of a broader movement to gain deeper health insights through the analysis of big data, often gathered from citizens willing to share their own records. Privacy and consent remain difficult questions, both ethically and technologically. Companies must also wrestle with compensation; should people who donate their data get a slice of the profits when those data lead to products?...