Why you should care

Because the next big cure could be sitting somewhere in all that stored data.

No one needed to drag 12-year-old Atul Butte to Macy’s. At the time, department stores carried some of the latest and greatest in technology, aka personal computers, and young Atul was smitten. He’d bring spiral notebooks from home filled with computer programs and type the programs in code while his parents — from India, settled in South Jersey — did their shopping. 

After Butte’s parents splurged on a new Apple II Plus, the rest was history: a computer science degree from Brown, summers at Apple and Microsoft, an M.D. (inspired by National Geographic articles on medical technology). Throw in a Ph.D. from MIT, for a whopping 17 years of post–high school education, and you’ll find that Butte is still tinkering. Only now he’s at the cutting edge of medicine and big data. After a decade at Stanford, Butte was tapped last year to head clinical informatics for all five of the University of California’s medical systems, and to lead UCSF’s new Institute for Computational Health Sciences. UCSF Chancellor Sam Hawgood calls Butte “a visionary leader” who will “revolutionize” the conception of wellness and medicine.

Butte’s mandate? To change the way the health care system uses and interprets — yes, you guessed it — “big data.” And by big data, we mean BIG data: the health records of over 14 million people in the UC system and countless research studies. If record keeping doesn’t sound sexy, it’s probably because you don’t realize that sloppy records could keep the best cures available from being found. Butte’s history of extracting insight from massive, forgotten messes made him a logical choice for the role. 

Then there’s the fact that Butte has proved himself adept at monetizing said data insights. Last year, he sold his 2-year-old company, Carmenta Bioscience, to prenatal testing company Progenity for an undisclosed amount. (Butte puts it this way: “The inventors and the investors are really happy.”) The sale followed Butte’s discovery of a key diagnostic for preeclampsia, the sudden and life-threatening spike in blood pressure that, along with other pregnancy-related hypertension disorders, kills 76,000 women and 500,000 infants each year. The data was hidden in a mix of old studies published online. “It’s as stupidly naive as that,” Butte says. 

When Butte isn’t at his stand-up desk in his open office, a force field of computer monitors surrounding him (he’ll be moving into a new building that’s going up next door, at UCSF’s Mission Bay Campus, he tells me), he’s hiking, sailing or leveraging his own data to keep off the 50 pounds he recently lost. It’s all about that data. And that’s unlikely to stop anytime soon. When I ask Butte about the next several years, he instantly responds that it will include more inventions and more companies. And he hopes others catch on. Until then, he’ll keep giving away his “secrets,” imploring med students to study computer science and telling anyone who will listen about untapped potential sitting in the interweb. Because, as they (might soon) say, mo’ data, mo’ money. 

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