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Barry Bunin: Reading, Writing & Rounding Up Research

Before The Cloud was a regular part of our lexicon, entrepreneurs such as Barry Bunin pioneered secure, collaborative data hosting for scientists.


"We have all the ideas for a Nobel Prize here in this lab. The problem is that the ideas are in separate brains instead of one. If we could gather everything into one brain, we could accomplish ground-breaking research," recollects Barry Bunin, Ph.D. (SLAS2016 Informatics Track associate chair) from a key insight made decades ago by then Columbia University postdoc Bob Rosenthal, Ph.D. The insight foreshadowed Bunin's current work.

As an undergraduate student at the time, Bunin was working in Professor Nick Turro's chemistry laboratory as part of the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program. While there, he met Rosenthal and experienced the excitement of research. Rosenthal's comment triggered Bunin's curiosity about collaborative science and led him to the question: How does one bring the research and expertise of many individuals together into one shared space?

Bunin's search for an answer eventually developed into a partnership with Eli Lilly and Company to form Collaborative Drug Discovery (CDD), Burlingame, CA. CDD's flagship product, CDD Vault, a hosted drug discovery database allows people to securely collaborate. It lets users organize chemical structures and biological study data and collaborate with internal or external partners through a web interface. Over 11 years and a quarter of a million customer logins later, Bunin, CEO and president of the company, is still passionately helping scientists create collaborative insights for their individual research projects.

Bunin, a bench scientist with roots in chemical library synthesis, has a deep understanding of the challenges scientists face doing research. "This perspective helped me start CDD and keep it from becoming an abstract informatics project. CDD Vault is rooted in the needs of drug discovery project teams. Collaboration can occur inside or outside four walls."

Bunin's enthusiasm for scientists and scientific collaboration thrives within the SLAS community. His expertise and networks help him in his current role as associate chair for the SLAS2016 Informatics Track. Recruited by SLAS2015 Chair Jim Inglese, Bunin eagerly anticipates the event and working with Informatics Track Chair Ellen Berg. "I appreciate SLAS as a vibrant and useful resource for science and business. I look forward to giving something back to the Society and having a deeper level of involvement," he comments.

Part of this involvement echoes his desire to bring scientists together as he helps increase the robustness of SLAS social media for SLAS2016. "I can help by growing networks and relationships in a way that is a win-win situation for SLAS. It's a wonderful organization that helps serve the entire scientific community."

Collaborating in the Cloud

His strategy to serve the scientific community on a broader scale is what led him to Eli Lilly and Company in 2003. Bunin had written a popular book on methods for making molecules and databases that caught the eye of Alpheus Bingham, then vice president of R&D Strategy for Eli Lilly. Bingham reached out to Bunin for his unique insight into the drug discovery business and market dynamics. Bingham recruited Bunin to be entrepreneur-in-residence for e-Lilly, the innovation venture arm of Lilly.

Specifically, Eli Lilly brought Bunin in to explore their idea, ChemBot, which eventually matured into CDD. "I had six months to explore the idea, develop a prototype and make a case for the scalable business opportunity there," Bunin explains. "It was a great opportunity in a safe environment to test some ideas. None of this would have happened without the luxury of working under the wing of Bingham at Eli Lilly." Bunin's six-month contract extended to a nine-month opportunity, and Bingham eventually introduced other ideas like spinning the project out of Eli Lilly as a new company.

As the project developed, Bunin noticed a disparity between the technology used by academics and that used in pharmaceutical companies. He had first noticed it while working for an informatics tool developer prior to his Eli Lilly residency. "Academics didn't have the right computers or infrastructure for the software we were developing during my entrepreneur in residence assignment. Academic start-ups operated in a vacuum in terms of easy-to-use technology that could help them conduct drug discovery initiatives that were relevant to pharmaceutical companies, thereby making useful collaboration challenging." He knew there was an opportunity to cultivate better collaboration through software, if someone could unlock the process a bit.

"We think a lot about end users from a software perspective," Bunin says. "To create useful collaborative software we must understand what everyone from the technician to the scientist to the manager to the vice president each wants from the software. For example, a biologist would want to double check her results before sharing it with a chemist so he doesn't get over-excited about a result which when tested in triplicate might not be statistically significant. Individuals need to be able to share expertise and wisdom. Everyone has a different need for collaboration. The technology has to be intuitive for each of them as individuals, but also for the synergy of the project. Technology changes the takes something that people used to think would take extra work and helps it become easier and faster."

Science on One Side, Business on the Other

It could be said that science and business run through Bunin's veins. When his parents married, they brought together a blended background of medical doctors and entrepreneurs. Dr. Simon Bunin, Barry's paternal grandfather, was a doctor and writer who composed poems for his wife and sons back home while serving during World War II. Later, Bunin's father and uncles all became medical doctors and a generation after that, his youngest brother (Mark) also entered the medical profession.

"Having doctors in the family makes you start to think about science, human health and how to help others at a young age. My dad, at age 72, is still working full time running his medical practice, and does house calls by bicycle. He is an inspiration to me to explore different things," Bunin says. "My younger brother Mark worked at a free clinic in Los Angeles and always focuses on the most disadvantaged. I also have learned from my second brother, Steve, who was a sports broadcaster nationally on ESPN with great stage presence. And my third brother, David, has taught me about risk mitigation and thorough preparation. He is an airplane mechanic working with the safety protocols for Southwest Airlines. We all do totally different things. It helps us be open-minded. There is not one way to do life. It's a big world and our parents knew that doing something that you enjoy doing gives you more energy over time. Different people have different muses."

The entrepreneurial gene comes from his mother's side of the family. "My mother's mother, Grandma Estelle, left college during the Great Depression to help run her mother's dress shop. My Great Grandma Rose had a strong personality, which forced Grandma Estelle to position her ideas as if they came from Rose. I learned the psychology of running a business from hearing these stories!" he says with a laugh. "We were really close. When I was a kid sometimes we'd make each other laugh so hard, she could barely breathe. My mom would make us stop so Grandma could catch her breath."

Bunin's mom was a math teacher before she began raising her four boys. "My mom's a model for self-confidence. She excels at speaking publicly. And she is a lifetime master at bridge," Bunin says. Armed with his mom's inspiration as a teacher and with a New York State teaching certificate, Bunin taught high school honors and regular chemistry at Manhattan's A. Phillip Randolph High School while earning his bachelor's degree at Columbia. While he moved on to research, he never left education far behind. "I apply my knowledge of effective learning mechanisms to my books and companies. There is an excitement seeing light bulbs turn on in different people's brains," he says.

When he attended graduate school at University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley), Bunin quickly formed a network of valuable colleagues with one relationship building onto the next. He leveraged his existing relationship from Columbia University with Virginia Cornish, Ph.D., who now had become a NSF predoctoral graduate student in the SLAS2012 keynote speaker Peter G. Schultz, Ph.D. laboratory at UC Berkeley. She introduced Bunin to Jonathan Ellman, Ph.D., who would become Bunin's Ph.D. advisor. Together, their work creating benzodiazepine libraries helped pave the way for modern small molecule parallel chemical synthesis.

Bunin describes Ellman as an excellent scientist who taught him to be both creative and rigorous. "He had the most exciting ideas I had come across at that point: Taking the idea of diversity from your immune system, antibodies and peptides and applying it to small molecules," he says.

As the Ellman lab's first graduate student, Bunin got excited about the transformative possibilities of research from these first projects. "Research seemed to offer more opportunity for individual expression and to more broadly serve humanity," he says.

This passion for research fueled the eventual creation of CDD. "We developed a secure space so that scientists, when working with sensitive intellectual property that might be the next billion-dollar drug, could collaborate within their natural workflows," Bunin explains. "It's redefining collaboration. People can work together within the same company; say a chemist and a biologist, or a computational scientist and an experimentalist, or a Ph.D. and technician. Or researchers can use CDD Vault across complementary laboratories bringing together specialists from companies, CROs or academia. There are a lot of different ways in which you can get that collaborative synergy with an intuitive, secure platform. You get a multiplier effect in terms of your value from others. It's a credit to our software development, product and design teams that people often remark upon the intuitive aspects of CDD Vault."

When he started developing proposals for clients there was no term for "the cloud." The CDD Vault was one of the first hosted solutions in the space, even before Amazon took up residence there. "As pioneers in that space, we kind of got the worst of both worlds!" Bunin says. His team had to assure clients that this unknown virtual space was securely protected, and then rapidly adapt to maintain their distinctive product when others began developing similar concepts for cloud computing. "Before others were hosting solutions in the space, everyone needed reassurance about its security, which is how the word 'vault' became part of the platform name (CDD Vault)," he explains. "Once we demonstrated that the space was secure and economical, every other vendor began to copy some aspect of our operation."

One benefit is that CDD's hosted solution (CDD Vault) simplifies complex workflows with a single solution. The engineering costs are economically spread across a constantly growing base of users, Bunin explains. "Workflows range from a single experiment on a single compound up to a full, high-throughput screening (HTS) campaign, say run in quadruplicate at nine concentrations with positive and negative controls, normalization and dose response curve generation including preset minimum and maximum values. CDD Vault must support the very specific, accurate representations of diverse chemical and biological data. Scientists require CDD Vault to correctly represent complex molecules and provide proper analysis of most any imaginable bioassay," he continues. "When you create a business solution, you want to solve a hard problem because if you do it well then it's difficult for other companies to copy your work, but it also means that it is complicated to build that solution. We had to create technology that people are comfortable collaborating with down the hallway or halfway around the world and do so economically."

Bunin doesn't limit his idea harvesting to scientists, but also gathers views from other entrepreneurs and business gurus. He met Four Steps to the Epiphany author Steve Blank and chatted with him at his home on one occasion. "His book talks about optimizing technology and becoming a successful entrepreneur by learning from your customers. He gave me some useful advice," Bunin comments.

He also gathered some helpful advice from Steve Goldby, former CEO of Symyx Technologies and MDL. "Steve told me that launching a company is harder than you think. You read about the founders of Google and PayPal, they are like the Michael Jordans of the world – there are very few of them," Bunin says. "Most people are honesty brokers creating honest value and earning it with each interaction. I think your business idea needs to be something that you are excited about beyond the money that can be made to see it all through. Money is not enough of an incentive for how much work it actually takes to create substantial, lasting value. You are responsible for other people's jobs and other people's companies and careers. You don't want to do it unless you really have something. You need to build a business because it's true to who you are and true to what you want to be doing to be of service. If that's the case, you will be better at overcoming inevitable obstacles."

Bunin echoes Steve Jobs' viewpoint that persistence is the most important attribute for success, but also quotes the Robert Frost poem that 'I have miles to go before I sleep.' "I don't feel that I have necessarily achieved the majority of what I consider success," he concludes. "I have in mind a specific set of technologies and a specific number of scientific projects where our company is truly helpful, and then that would satisfy me. We are part of the way there, but there's more to do."

Continuing the Other Family Tradition...

These days, when the busy entrepreneur is not listening to music and recharging with a fast walk along the San Francisco Bay, located just outside of CDD's doors, he is continuing another family tradition – a bustling, active family. Along with his wife, Debbie, who works nearby at SRI International, the couple is raising 9-year-old Evan and 6-year-old Zachary to pursue their interests with zest. The family plays sports (the kids are involved in their dad's favorite, basketball on the downstairs slam-dunk hoop) and frequently visits their Little Free Library.

"The library is a grassroots way to teach and share information," Bunin says. The wooden box, built from online instructions, sits in front of their home and holds a small collection of books to freely borrow that have been placed there by the Bunins and their neighbors. "You put in the books you have already read and want to share. People take what they want and share what they have already read. It ends up having a multiplier effect as a function of all the books and learning within your little community," Bunin explains. He considers the Little Free Library within the context of our modern high-tech world. "As technology progresses and people go deeper into the Internet, they spend less time with their neighbors. This is a good way to sort of intellectually and socially engage your neighbors. It is a feather in Debbie's cap. I just seeded it with a few provocative books!"

The avid reader has no shortage of suggestions for other SLAS members. A few recent reads include Connectome: How the Brain's Wiring Makes Us Who We Are, The Demon Under the Microscope and The Tao of Leadership.

"Whenever someone mentions a book that they like, I buy it," Bunin comments. "Whether I have time at the moment to read it or not, it's a good way of cultivating an environment of ideas around me. Obviously, I try to talk to people whose opinions I respect. Some are for fun or for learning. I am still very curious. I think that's a competitive advantage."

July 20, 2015