Entrepreneur Rocketed Into Space, Then Died a Month Later - WSJ

Glen de Vries, a charismatic leader who co-founded a medical-software firm, found time to master the guitar, learn to fly and teach himself Japanese

Updated Nov. 17, 2021 4:44 pm ET


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In the 1970s, Glen de Vries was a precocious little boy who loved science, Lego bricks and model rockets.

By 2021, he was a software entrepreneur who still loved science, still built rockets with Lego blocks and now could afford to fly on a real rocket, operated by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin LLC. Mr. de Vries was one of two paying customers on a 10-minute flight on Oct. 13 that took them and the actor William Shatner to the edge of space.

Back on Earth, Mr. de Vries called his space adventure life-changing. Though he declined to say how much he had paid for his ticket, he assured interviewers the trip was worth the price.

In an interview conducted by Carnegie Mellon University, he described the spacecraft as a “cannonball with windows.” On the way down, he said, “you watch the curve of the planet go back to flat and the textures change. The view on the way back was just as incredible as it was on the way up.”

Four weeks later, on Nov. 11, Mr. de Vries was one of two people who died in the crash of a single-engine Cessna 172 in a wooded area near Lake Kemah, N.J. Investigators didn’t immediately identify the pilot.

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Mr. de Vries, who was 49, was a charismatic biologist and computer scientist who co-founded Medidata Solutions Inc., a provider of software and other services for clinical trials of pharmaceuticals and medical devices.

At his high school, the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York City, he was such an advanced student that he sometimes helped teach chemistry classes. As an adult, he mastered public speaking, ballroom dancing and guitar playing. He learned Japanese well enough to give speeches and sing karaoke.

Uri Attia, a friend, recalled being stuck in an airport and struggling to rebook after a canceled flight to Costa Rica. “I was about to blow my top,” Mr. Attia said. Mr. de Vries calmly offered a plan: “You and I are going to unleash the power of comedy.” His goofy charm quickly induced an airline employee to find first-class seats on an alternative flight.

After his death, family members visited his home and found he had been working on a Lego replica of Blue Origin’s spacecraft.

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Glen Michael de Vries was born June 29, 1972, and grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. His mother, now known as Madeline Hooper, ran a public relations firm. His father, Alan de Vries, was a Wall Street securities trader and executive. His parents divorced when Glen was young but worked out amicable ways to share parenting responsibilities.

“He just was a curious kid,” his mother said. “He was so into how things go together and how things mechanically work and why planes fly.” At age 10, he had his first computer, a Sinclair 1000.

He earned a degree in molecular biology and genetics at Carnegie Mellon University, where he rowed on the crew team. To earn spending money, he took a job calling alumni to solicit donations. One of his calls yielded an invitation to work in a research lab at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center.

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At the lab, he met Edward Ikeguchi, who was doing his medical residency in urology. As they worked on research related to prostate-cancer treatments in the mid-1990s, the two young men noticed that records were kept on paper and shared via barely legible carbon copies and faxes. “The nurses were basically running around like headless chickens filling out forms,” Dr. Ikeguchi said.

Though the internet was still a novelty, the two men began working on online forms for clinical trials and formed a business, eventually called Medidata. Their first big capital expenditure was about $20,000 for a copper-wire internet connection to Mr. de Vries’s apartment. In 1999 they were joined by Tarek Sherif, who had financial experience and became chief executive.

Medidata went public in 2009 and a decade later was sold to Dassault Systèmes for about $5.8 billion. Messrs. de Vries and Sherif stayed on as senior executives. “In 21 years, we never had an argument,” Mr. Sherif said. “We disagreed on things but we would always find common ground.”

Mr. de Vries served as a trustee of Dancing Classrooms, a nonprofit that teaches children to dance. It was, he said, a way to develop poise, mutual respect and confidence.

He learned to fly airplanes about two years ago and later bought a Diamond DA40 plane. A few days before his death he posted on Instagram a picture of his plane on a bumpy runway at a tiny airport near Limington, Maine. “Really good restaurant!” he reported. “Worth a trip!”

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Whenever he could find time, he jammed on his guitar in an amateur band called Spread Eagle, whose specialties included covers of Journey’s “Separate Ways” and Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World.”

He served as a trustee at Carnegie Mellon University and endowed a deanship at CMU’s Mellon College of Science.

His 2020 book, “The Patient Equation,” envisioned an injection of data science into medicine to bring the best medical knowledge “to patients of all demographics around the world.” He foresaw personal health-tracking devices feeding data into global online platforms to allow for more sharing of information to speed up research and foster personalized treatments.

Mr. de Vries was married and divorced three times. His survivors include his parents and two half sisters, Lizzy de Vries and Catherine Hooper.

Mr. Attia summed up Mr. de Vries’s approach to life this way: “He would go into every situation asking how could this be more fun?”

Write to James R. Hagerty at bob.hagerty@wsj.com