From Oral Cytology to Cancer Research, the Open Health Systems Laboratory Connects Researchers, Helps Secure Funding, and Brings Supercomputing to Montgomery County
When Anil Srivastava started AcrossWorld Communications, he called on an unlikely source for his mission statement: Walt Whitman. He would quote from Whitman’s masterpiece, “Leaves of Grass.” More specifically, he would draw on a section of “Passage to India”
Lo, soul! seest thou not God’s purpose from the first? The earth to be spann’d, connected by net-work, The people to become brothers and sisters, The races, neighbors, to marry and be given in marriage, The oceans to be cross’d, the distant brought near, The lands to be welded together.
While he doesn’t use that passage for his latest start-up project, the Open Health Systems Laboratory (OHSL), a non-profit located
on the Montgomery County Campus, it’s actually still incredibly relevant. OHSL’s business model relies on Srivastava’s ability to find people all
over the world who have unique expertise but common interests and bring them together to create new medical research initiatives.
“It’s a simple idea, really,” Srivastava said. “I feel like I’ve worked my whole life on this idea.”
The simple idea? Srivastava brings these like-minded people together onto conference calls so they can get to know each other and identify common interests. He encourages these experts to focus on the science, which isn’t his “knowledge” area – Srivastava’s background is in information technology – and to firm up the science concept.
“In early conversations, it’s really easy for people to get distracted by issues related to funding or technology,” he said. “My role is to make sure they don’t do that. I tell them to create the project, and then OHSL’s job is to help them get the funding and technology they need to execute the research.”
OHSL also is helpful in its ability to help scientists and researchers navigate working with geographically distant colleagues in different cultures. He cites a current project under development with researchers, the Oral Cytology Global Network (OCGN), as an example. OCGN researchers hail from Germany, India, South Africa and the United States, and the network is still expanding. Potential partners include researchers from China, Italy, Russia and Sweden.
OHSL gets paid only if a project is funded, and the payment is tied to the company providing the common services these projects need to succeed, such as project management, audit and finance services, legal, IT, etc.
So why build a business around such a seemingly unstable funding source?
“On a cynical level, everyone’s looking for money and our being able to help source funds makes us valuable,” Srivastava said. “But more than that, it’s clear through my various ventures that knowledge is extremely distributed and that the only way to grow that knowledge is through conversations.
“When I started OHSL, I thought it was going to be difficult to convince these different people to get on the phone with me and then with their colleagues,” he said. “But so far, not one person has told me to go away.”
So far, OHSL-coordinated projects are few. The Indo-US Science and Technology Forum (IUSSTF) provided a small grant to the Indian Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC) and Moffit Cancer Center to host a workshop in Tampa two months ago titled “Accelerating Botanicals and Biologics Agent Development Research for Cancer Chemoprevention.” Srivastava is excited about projects that are growing out of that workshop. OHSL also participated in the submission of an RFP related to oral cytology that, if awarded, will be worth $200,000.
Both projects are test cases for OHSL, which ultimately sees itself getting involved in projects worth millions of dollars.
“There are a number of smaller grants out there that people like to describe as low-hanging fruit,” Srivastava says, “But the low-hanging fruit is what everyone’s going after. We’d rather be involved with big, innovative, cutting-edge projects.”
He believes OHSL will ultimately be able to attract and build those kinds of projects because of its access to large-scale computing facilities thanks to upcoming projects on the campus, including a Mid-Atlantic Crossroads (MAX) Point of Presence (POP) location and a new C-DAC shared use supercomputing facility. Srivastava was instrumental in both projects.
He has a long-standing relationship with MAX through past work for World Bank and Internet2 where he concurrently serves as senior advisor for health sciences.
“World Bank came to me because I had a lot of leftover knowledge after my failed start-up AcrossWorld Communications,” he said. “That often happens with failed commercial ventures. In this case, it was my knowledge of creating global networks.”
Srivastava knew MAX was looking at potential POP locations and connected the company with Johns Hopkins. He said that the now under construction National Cancer Institute (NCI) facility was a major factor in MAX’s decision to locate here.
As to C-DAC, Srivastava also has a long relationship with the Indian IT sector and was involved with the organization since its early days of creation. He was the funding President of India’s National Association of Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM). C-DAC also has a long-standing relationship with NCI, so the forthcoming facility also was a factor in C-DAC’s decision to locate a computational biology supercomputing facility on campus.
Srivastava and OHSL are partners with C-DAC in creating this new facility along with the Poznan Supercomputing and Networking Center in Poland and the Tata Memorial Centre in India. In the beginning, OHSL will be running the facility, which will provide for-fee supercomputing services. Srivastava also hopes the facility will be able to partner with the JHU Center for Biotechnology Education and offer courses in computational biology for JHU’s graduate students.
Of course, it all began with Srivastava’s decision to locate OHSL on the Johns Hopkins Montgomery County Campus. And that decision, it seems, was easy for Srivastava. “I come from Silicon Valley,” he said. “Right now, here, is the perfect storm to create something similar, if you can just influence the direction of the wind.
“People like to say Silicon Valley was built on the backs of venture capitalists, but that’s not true,” he added. “Silicon Valley started with a Department of Defense contract. The DoD wanted better computers on board aircrafts and funded a company to create denser semiconductor chips. We have those same kinds of contracts here in health that they had out there back then.
“The Montgomery County Campus in particular is an innovative environment. I can walk across the hall and find the expertise I need. I can walk to the cafeteria. I can walk into one of the best libraries in the world and find what I need.”
Anil Srivastava (center) at a BioBuzz happy hour with BioBuzz founder Chris Frew of Tech USA and Lily Qi from the Montgomery County government.