How CZI’s Tech Team Builds New Tools to Unlock Advances in Biomedical Research

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The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is atypical among grantmaking organizations for a few reasons. While it makes traditional grants to nonprofits — in areas like education, science, health, climate and justice — it's not technically a foundation or charitable trust, but rather a limited liability company that looks a bit like a blend of traditional grantmaking philanthropy and the technology industry that provided the assets behind it.

One example is CZI's Science Technology team. The Science Tech group consists of about 100 people whose job is to identify technology gaps and build tools that can accelerate the work of biomedical researchers around the world.

“CZI is a unique philanthropy in the sense that it has a technology focus, and actually has a technology team,” said Patricia Brennan, vice president of Science Technology at CZI. “Our remit is to identify areas of technology or opportunities that are not well addressed by other parts of the ecosystem but that would help unlock opportunity and change the trajectory of science and technology — that's what we focus on.”

Why this is particularly important now is that biomedical research has been advancing lately in areas that heavily leverage technology and massive amounts of data, such as the fields of single-cell biology and genomics. The data within such areas of biology hold great promise to unlock secrets of health and disease, but manipulating and making sense of it all requires the development of technology tools that are not at all trivial to create.

So CZI’s Science Tech team operates something like a biotech firm — it's got product managers, engineers, AI specialists, among others, but also biology researchers and computational biologists. The group is designed to bring together the biological scientists and computational professionals who can then build the tools and resources that make a difference to other scientists, clinicians and patient communities, and speed up the process of discovery.

In a more general sense, the Science Tech team is advancing CZI's “build, fund, do” ethos to advancing innovation in biomedical research: build open source software tools to drive biological research, fund research to advance biomedicine, and do research that can’t be done in conventional environments.

“We always look to apply those three levers to a problem,” Brennan told me recently. For example, the tech team might collaborate with researchers who are generating relevant research data, or perhaps fund others to co-develop — that is, build — a tool. “If there's an area where it looks like it's commercially viable and there's interest in the market, we're not going to invest or address those areas. But if there are areas that seem intractable, or require a combination of expertise plus collaboration, even sometimes plus funding that would help unlock the opportunity and change the trajectory of science and technology, that's what we focus on.”

Currently, the Science Tech group is focusing on three areas of biomedical research: infectious disease, single-cell biology and imaging technology. Within these areas, they've led the development of complex, open-source data and computing tools. These tools may not sound as important (or even comprehensible) to laypeople as, say, a breakthrough in cancer treatment, but they are as important an advance to today's biomedical scientists as the invention of the microscope was to scientists of an earlier era. They let them see and understand aspects of biology no one could see before.

Consider CZI's CELL by GENE tool, which is used by thousands of scientists around the world to make sense of the enormous quantities of data being generated across the field of cell and computational biology. "Single-cell technology was really taking off, with a lot of research being done, and the idea was to aggregate all of those datasets coming out of these single cell studies and integrate them in such a way that they could be actually reused by scientists to generate new hypotheses and new models to advance their work," said Brennan. CELL by GENE aggregates that data and makes it available for use, and enables scientists to find answers in seconds, rather than conducting experiments that might otherwise take years, if they were even possible.

Another current area of focus for the Science Tech team is the data bottlenecks commonly faced by researchers who use advanced imaging to understand the images they make of the microscopic processes of single cells and human physiology. CZI has funded and done development on a platform called the Napari Hub, which helps researchers find useful and proven image analysis methods. Again, most of us don't think about the practical problems in doing biomedical research, but tools like the Napari Hub can be the difference between questions and answers.

The Science Tech team has also been developing technology tools in its focus area of infectious disease. These include free genomics analysis platforms that researchers and public health agencies can use to identify disease outbreaks and newly emerging infectious disease. “Our primary user base and target for these are researchers in lower- and middle-income countries, where often, the cloud infrastructure or the technology infrastructure is not as well developed for doing these kinds of analyses,” said Brennan.

“These are new abilities, in the sense that they're more accessible as computing capabilities have advanced and as biologists have embraced and adapted and incorporated those computing capabilities into their work,” said Brennan. The technology can speed up research and enable better sharing between scientists — if there's if there's a centralized support of the sort that CZI's tools and platforms seek to enable. “A lot of data will be coming out of that research over the coming years, so one of the things we can do is bring that data together and bring it to bear for the broader scientific community to access and to use it to build models to further create new scientific research.”

For more general information about CZI, reference, see our backgrounders on CZI and the Chan-Zuckerberg funding vehicles.