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Michael Kellen, chief technology officer for Sage Bionteworks, and his wife, Sonja, whom he credits for managing their lives outside of work. (Photo courtesy of Michael Kellen)

As chief technology officer for Sage Bionetworks, Michael Kellen has the rare opportunity to merge the commercial drive of a startup with the mission-driven focus of a nonprofit.

Kellen leads a 20-person product development team within Sage, a Seattle-based organization that fosters collaboration among researchers in pursuit of medical breakthroughs. His group builds software products with web, mobile, cloud services and scientific computing applications. The success of their products, which are used by researchers within and outside of Sage, fuels their ability to raise more money to pay for their work.

“We still have the same rigor that a commercial company has,” Kellen said.

About eight years ago, his team developed Synapse, which Kellen describes as a collaboration framework for sharing data. Sage employees brought together a half-dozen research institutions working on the genomics of colon cancer to share their work through Synapse. The teams had categorized subgroups of colon cancer patients based on the genetics behind their disease, but each did it differently and they weren’t able to pool their data. Using the platform developed by Kellen’s group, they were able to make sense of everyone’s contributions.

Michael Kellen, chief technology officer for Sage Bionetworks. (Sage Bionetworks Photo)

“They were able to determine there are four distinct clusters of colon cancer,” Kellen said.

That’s important because if a mix of patients was given the same drug to treat the cancer, it might do wonders for one of the four varieties, but it would appear less effective because the other three genetic variations might not respond. Breaking the umbrella of colon cancer into four groups allows for more targeted treatments.

“You have this baseline of knowledge of what the real biology is because we did the work of getting these disconnected groups of researchers to share information,” Kellen said.

Their other main project is called Bridge. Started more than four years ago, this platform allows researchers to connect with and track patients over time using mobile devices. The tool is being used in 30 different studies addressing a variety of conditions and harnessing information gathered through smart phones and other monitoring devices. It’s a sort of well-constructed crowd sourcing of medical information.

The goal, said Kellen, is “how do we get lots of different people looking at these things from different perspectives.”

Before coming to Sage, Kellen worked at the tech company Teranode. He holds a Ph.D. in bioengineering from the University of Washington. We caught up with Kellen for this Working Geek, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.

Michael Kellen and family ready for a fun-run featuring a massive s’more. (Photo courtesy of Michael Kellen)

Current location: Sage has new offices across from the Pacific Science Center in Seattle

Computer types: Microsoft Surface Laptop (first generation)

Mobile devices: Samsung Galaxy S9, which I bought for the biosensor that measures blood pressure. We did a project supporting a study on stress management with University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and Samsung earlier this year.

Favorite apps, cloud services and software tools: We’re heavy Amazon Web Services (AWS) users. Sage no longer has physical servers at all.

Describe your workspace. Why does it work for you? It’s pretty sparse. Everything we do is online so I can work just about anywhere I have a laptop and internet connection.

Your best advice for managing everyday work and life? Marry well. I can be quite absent minded. My wife is super organized and gets all sorts of personal things into my calendar. At this point I’d be completely lost if my phone wasn’t reminding me what to do most days.

Your preferred social network? How do you use it for business/work? I almost never use social networks.

Michael Kellen’s super spare work space. (Sage Bionetworks Photo)

Current number of unanswered emails in your inbox? 10-20

Number of appointments/meetings on your calendar this week? 19, and that’s with one day blocked out for grant writing, and one day as a personal vacation.

How do you run meetings? No one formula, it really depends. In the past 1-2 years my team went through a size transition where we added some team managers and product managers.

Everyday work uniform? Nice jeans or chinos, button-down shirt

How do you make time for family? Even if we have a lot going on, we almost always have dinner together. My wife and I both work so we outsource as much of the housework as we can so when we are around, we’re not buried in that. The one big exception where I like to do things around the house is cooking.

Best stress reliever? How do you unplug? Exercise. I broke my ankle playing ultimate a couple months ago, which was pretty limiting for a while. I’ve been doing a lot of biking at home now with my bike up on a trainer and using the Peloton digital app to take spin classes in my basement. I’ve been surprised how effective it is, although hopefully as the bone heals and weather improves I’ll be able to re-diversify my exercise options.

What are you listening to? A lot of podcasts and audio books on my commutes. NPR, especially the more sciencey stuff, Freakanomics, Malcom Gladwell’s show. Recently finished the Atul Guwande’s book this way.

Daily reads? Favorite sites and newsletters? I still read the Seattle Times on actual paper. I keep meaning to switch to digital, but for some reason I like having the actual paper to read at breakfast. Washington Post digital for national news. Use Google Scholar to get some alerts on science publications. The Sage Slack channels help me find random relevant things.

Book on your nightstand (or e-reader)? Mix of sci-fi and real science. For the former, have read several Jon Scalzi books recently. Will also read a lot of popular science in areas completely unrelated to Sage’s work, especially natural history and evolutionary biology.

Night owl or early riser? Naturally a night owl. I’m continually trying to pull myself earlier to mesh better with family and work, but it’s not natural.

Where do you get your best ideas? Reading a lot, and adapting ideas from different fields to work.

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