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Frank Brown - In Memoriam

Frank Brown - In Memoriam


Not all of you knew Frank Brown, the recently retired head of Global Structural Chemistry at Merck. Frank, who passed away Sunday morning of a heart attack at the age of only 57 was, however, instrumental to OpenEye being a success. In fact, his career was interwoven with OpenEye even before there was an OpenEye. In 1995, when I was first thinking of leaving Columbia to go to Santa Fe, Frank, who was at that time head of modeling at Glaxo (before it was even GSK), offered me a job to come work with him on 'advanced  visualization'. He'd liked what he'd seen in GRASP, the protein electrostatics graphics program I had written at Columbia, and wanted to have me do more. It was actually a tough call because the thought of working with him and on graphics was pretty appealing. In the end, of course, my own insanity won out but it was close. Frank remains one of only two people who have ever offered me a job. 

‘Do more' pretty much summed up Frank's position on most things, from his time at Glaxo, to his leaving to join Oxford Molecular (a competitor to Accelrys/Biovia in its day), then back to pharma with Johnson & Johnson, then back to software at Accelrys, then finally, for the last four years, at Merck. At each and every place he always pushed a bigger, more expansive vision of CADD and Cheminformatics (a term he claimed to have invented: and probably did).

When we first started to approach Merck about Orion it always seemed a natural extension of what he had done as a vendor at Accelrys and as a customer at Merck,  i.e. to tie everything together with an open, reliable, expansive computational platform. And even though he was on his way out of Merck at this stage, it still felt like Frank was pushing us along.

He was one of our very first customers while at J&J – probably in 1999. I still remember us waiting daily for his check to arrive because, for one of the few times in our history, it meant whether we made payroll or not. And it did arrive. Wherever he was he always had time for you and advice, always valuable. In the early days, we had no idea what to charge for yearly maintenance so Frank informed us that the number was 18% and twenty years later that's still the number. While Chief Scientific Officer of Accelrys he always tried to foster a closer relationship between our companies and gave a great CUP talk on a vision for Pipeline Pilot that these days only Orion is likely to achieve.

But beyond all that there was Mark McGann, currently our longest serving OpenEye employee. I've saved this for last because it's both the funniest and truest to who Frank was. He and I had breakfast at Pasqual's in downtown  Santa Fe about two years after I'd started OpenEye. "How can I help?", he asked. I said, "Well, how about money?". "Yeah, yeah, yeah", he said, "That'll come, but I was thinking about people. See, I've got this post-doc, I think he's really sharp but I don't  have anything for him to do. Do you think you could use him?". "Sure", I said, "I've got some ideas about how to do docking right, do you think he'd be good for that?". "Absolutely", said Frank, "I'll pay his salary, but you have him work for you and if he  comes up with anything, we'll publish a paper together and then I'll get J&J to buy it from you, how about that?". "Great", I said, "What's his name?". Frank looks a little abashed, "I can't remember his name – DON'T tell him that when you meet him!". And that  was how Mark and I met, and the fact that Frank could not remember his name was naturally one of the first things we discussed.

It's deeply distressing that Frank won't be a part of our community anymore. It feels like a lot of color and character left it in one fell swoop. That he'd decided to start his own consulting company and call it "Frank Informatics"  should illustrate the man's general chutzpah. He wasn't the most modest of men but he was one of the nicest and most genuine. He and his wife Hilary's hospitality was legendary and my thoughts and sympathies go out to her and their sons. We have lost a great  colleague and friend in Frank Brown, but they so much more.