The following is an interview conducted with Barry Wark, the co-founder and CEO of OvationCan you tell me a bit about the problems that Ovation is trying to solve?
We build tools to help scientists do great science, and help researchers manage data and collaborate more effectively. We came to the need for this from my own personal experience: my background was in computer science and then neuroscience, and while I was doing a PhD at the University of Washington, I had the opportunity to work for two brilliant professors, an experimentalist named Fred Rieke and a theorist name Adrian Fairhall. The project I was working on combined experiment and theory, and we struggled to manage the data for that collaboration and to keep track of the lineage of that data so we knew what experiments were used for which theoretical results, and vice versa. A lot of the need for a tool like Ovation came from that personal experience.
Our other product is Ovation for Service Labs. It’s a new generation of the LIMS [laboratory information management system] for service labs and labs doing clinical diagnostics, and combines sample tracking with document management and training records. Our vision is to be a complete, lightweight solution for young labs that are trying to grow their business in service and clinical diagnostics.
It’s really important to me that we’re creating software with user needs in mind, because it’s not particularly common in the world of scientific software. Making software for scientists, without some kind of associated hardware or materials component, is actually a bit rare. It’s really hard to link systems across vendors, and it’s hard for a lot of companies currently in the scientific software space to respond in a user centered way, because their product roadmap is so dictated by the hardware and the platforms they’re providing as well. But by being the independent vendor, we’re perfectly happy linking information from any number of platforms and any number of devices. We can take a perspective that focused on the success of researchers and scientists, and not centered on any device or reagent. Nobody else is doing it this way, being the underlying glue layer.
Is it difficult creating products for two different parts of such a large industry?
Sure, it’s a challenge. We take a user-centric approach to designing our products, and think deeply about the needs of all of our users. Users in clinical service labs have different daily needs than researchers in academic life science. So it’s a challenge to build products that appeal to this broad range of users. But we see the needs of life science holistically. We see that there’s a common set of underlying challenges that span the entire space, which really relate to effectively and securely managing data, and being able to maintain the context or the story of that data so that teams of researchers or technicians can act appropriately with that data. It’s a common set of problems and so we see our expertise in this area as broadly applicable.
Can you talk a little about making the transition from neuroscientist to the CEO of a scientific software company? How did you go from doing pure science and doing software in a science lab to actually dealing with all the pains of running a high tech company? Why make the transition?
Even though Ovation’s products are relatively new, it’s all actually been decades in the making. I’ve been writing scientific software for 20 years...I wrote a DNA sequencing tool in my high school chemistry lab. So even when I was in the lab I was thinking about this. And it turns out that all of my successes in science were based on my ability to write software that helped us to do the experiments. It became clear to me as I was finishing graduate school that writing software tools that helped all scientists be more effective researchers was a lot more leverage than my ability as an individual scientist. So the reason for the transition is just my passion for science and caring about the field of science deeply, and wanting to make the biggest impact I possibly can. Doing a PhD teaches you a lot of self sufficiency in learning new things, so although I didn’t have a background in business, I felt confident that the importance of the task would let me learn what I needed to know.
What do you feel are the biggest problems facing the scientific community right now, and what’s Ovation’s plan for being in the midst of that and finding solutions for those problems?
The biggest problem is managing and understanding the lifecycle of data, and very importantly managing it within a group or even multiple groups, whether collocated or distributed. So we see a couple of related problems around effective collaboration. First is understanding and maintaining the lifecycle of data. The more people and teams that are in involved, the harder it is for researchers to maintain context, and understand the data, how it was collected, and how it was analyzed. Over time that becomes a crippling issue for labs and organizations. The second one is around how to effectively enable and support collaboration in environments where researchers need to control, because of regulation or necessity, who sees what, and under what conditions. We see that especially in human subject research where consent and regulation require lot of information be kept private, even though researchers have a strong desire and need to collaborate globally. We see those as two related problems. You can’t effectively share data, whether it’s public, or partially visible, or completely hidden, without knowing the lifecycle of that data, and you can’t know the lifecycle unless you can share it and track it effectively.
Are there any researchers out there that you admire, whose work and whose process you think is really effective?
There’s cutting edge science happening all over the world, but what I’m really paying attention to lately are all of the consortia not only pooling resources but pooling different philosophies from throughout the country and world to tackle big problems. And that’s because I’m really impressed by those who can break down the barriers that can sometimes exist in science and really work together in a uniform manner to solve a problem that plagues mankind. It’s really about the collaborative effort. An example of that would be the iGeneTrain consortium, who are tackling the rejection of transplanted livers and trying to make lives better for those who have to face the daunting process of having a major organ transplanted. Consortia like these have embraced Ovation because it allows them to close that geographic distance and work together as a more effective team to help these patient populations or advance scientific discovery more quickly. Locality can really matter in biology, and in order to gain a full understanding of any life science issue, you need expertise in diverse environments, and that manifests itself in agricultural research, that manifests itself it human genomics, that manifests itself in human health and translational medicine.
Can you talk a little more about running a company here in Boston? What are the challenges of being a company with such a commitment to user success, and creating only software for the sciences?
It’s funny, coming from a background in science, I saw new professors starting their labs, and I see a lot of similarity in starting a company and starting a lab in life science. And at the core is this necessity to do something amazing with fewer resources than you’d like in order to accomplish that. I think that’s sort of the core of both scientific and commercial entrepreneurship: accomplishing something great on little resource. To be honest that’s the most exciting part of the job for me, both in science and in business, is accomplishing something great that changes the world, not being held back by expectations of what should be doable.
Being a part of the tech scene in Boston is incredible. Our company has great advisers that add to the richness of this community, in particular in life science. This intersection of technology and life science, there’s no other place on Earth like Boston. The great minds of this field are next door, and that means that we’re immersed in new ideas, forward thinking individuals, and the engineering and business talent necessary to pull of this kind of endeavor. So we really love the community here, and the kind of conversation that gets generated around this intersection of technology doesn’t happen anywhere else on earth.
What’s next? What’s Ovation’s plan?
Our two products are both in beta right now, and they’re both going to be seeing wide scale commercial launches this year, so that’s obviously our immediate focus, and we’re really excited about the buzz that’s already been generated around both of these products. The next twelve months for us look like our entry into this world in a big way. We think that people are going to respond really well to these products, we think that we’re going to get a lot of adoption, and we’re looking forward to seeing what happens when researchers have collaboration tools available to them at scale. What comes out of putting tools in the hands of smart people is always exciting to see.
There are a lot of different styles, in terms of how the run the business and what they value and prioritize. What do you feel like Ovation’s team and company says about what you value and prioritize in the business?
I value outcomes in a business. And the outcomes are both commercial success and helping scientists do better science. We want to change the world, that’s our goal. And to do great audacious things takes a team that has diverse experience and diverse perspectives and is able to tackle what is a multi-headed beast simultaneously. So my philosophy is to hire smart people, give them challenges, and let them figure out the best solution. As a company we’ve hired broadly because we know that there are very human aspects of this problem, and there are very important design challenges in building tools that meet the needs of this specialized community. We also know that there are deep technical challenges to pulling it off. Success in any one of those doesn’t guarantee success for the business. We need to execute in all of those ways. So our team is balanced between commercial, technical and design capabilities. And so far I think that’s working really well for us.