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Beyond academia: debunking the industry–academia barrier myth

Graduation mortar board and briefcase

Credit: Science Photo Library/Getty

Feet in both camps: Julie Gould hears from scientists who combine industry roles with academic ones.

Scientist-entrepreneur Javier Garcia Martinez recalls combining an academic role at the University of Alicante, Spain, while getting a catalyst start-up called Rive Technology off the ground.

The experience, he says, taught him that a so-called barrier between academia and other sectors is no more than a state of mind. “To me, it feels all part of the same thing. It’s our own mindset that puts different activities in different silos,” he tells Julie Gould. Martinez adds: “I was studying, discovering better catalysts, you know, in my academic lab, also in my company, and at the same time talking to customers, to investors, to raise money, and to put that into a commercial plan.”

In the third episode of this six-part Working Scientist podcast series about porosity, defined as the movement of people between sectors, Gould also hears from drug-discovery researcher Martin Gosling. He combines an academic post at the University of Sussex, UK, with a role as chief scientific officer at Enterprise Therapeutics, a biotech company that he co-founded in 2015.

She also talks to technology-transfer professional Nessa Carey, biochemist Dario Alessi, who leads the signal-transduction-therapy industry collaboration at the University of Dundee, UK, and Chaya Nayak, head of Facebook’s open research and transparency team.



Feet in both camps: Julie Gould hears from scientists who combine industry roles with academic ones.

Julie Gould: 00:09

Hello, I'm Julie Gould and this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. Welcome to the series Beyond Academia, where we explore the movement of people between academia and other sectors.

Martin Gosling was focused on basic research (on ion channel research) for the early part of his scientific career in academia. His PhD looked at ion channels in bone, his postdoc was on ion channels in blood vessels.

But it wasn't until his lectureship position at Imperial College London, when he started to look at the translational aspect of his work…

Martin Gosling: 00:49

…in terms of, okay, we've got some ideas about various fundamental process of diseases. How can we start to access funding to look for the molecules that will impact on this process? And back then there wasn't a huge amount of large scale funding for drug discovery projects in academia, which from my perspective, was a little bit frustrating.

Julie Gould: 01:12

And although he enjoyed being an academic at the time…

Martin Gosling: 01:15

…the balance between research, teaching, and admin, for me personally, was a little bit out of kilter.

Julie Gould: 01:21

So he took the plunge. He moved through the porous barrier into industry, and joined Novartis in 2001, where he spent almost 13 years working on ion channels, but also slowly moving further and further away from the research that he enjoyed doing.

So when Novartis decided to move the department he was working with to the USA, he and a few other colleagues decided to stay.

Martin Gosling: 01:45

So along with one of my then Novartis colleagues, Henry Danahay, and my ex colleague Clive McCarthy, the three of us formed a biotech company, with the aim of seeking venture capital funding, and starting to continue to work to discover new therapies for respiratory diseases.

Julie Gould: 02:05

Clearly, this didn't happen overnight. It takes a lot of work, effort, and learning, to start up a new company…

Martin Gosling: 02:11

You have to get the business plans, leveraging networks of friends, etc, that kind of knew a lot more about biotech than, than the three of us did. We hadn't worked in biotech before.

Julie Gould: 02:20

So to help support this adventure with biotech company Enterprise Therapeutics, Martin went back to academia. He became a professor and joined a University of Sussex research group….

Martin Gosling: 02:30

…that was actively set up by the university to pursue drug discovery.

Julie Gould: 02:35

Two months after starting at the university…

Martin Gosling: 02:40

…our biotech company got its first round of venture capital funding, and I was able to combine the two roles together. The biotech company ended up having a very strong relationship with the University of Sussex, where we did some of our basic research. It was funded by the biotech company,

Julie Gould: 02:55

It appeared to be a dream come true. But although dreams are exciting, they aren't always easy.

Martin Gosling: 03:02

It was kind of interesting, because everything we did was new, at times frightening and at other times incredibly exciting.

The thing that was really great was the decision making. It was apparent that we had some deficits in our skill sets. We were good at science, but we needed help with finances. And we needed help in terms of actually taking our science and building it into a company. So we recruited a CFO and a CEO to help us build the company out.

Julie Gould: 03:31

And over time, it became too much for Martin to wear both academic and biotech hats. So his academic professorship role became an honorary one, and he now spends all of his time working in the biotech company. But that doesn't mean he's cut all of the ties with the university. Just because you don't actually work at a university doesn't mean it's inaccessible. There are holes in that membrane that you could just reach a hand through.

Martin Gosling: 03:57

So I think the lines over the last couple of decades have just become increasingly blurred. It's also been a case that I think industry has recognized that collaboration with academia is really, really important. And most firms have initiatives where they actively encourage academics to approach them with new ideas. Or if they've got some some assets, or they feel that the company has a technology that they can utilize to further their research. And that's been great to see.

Interacting with those people who have made a single target for example, you know, the focus of their life, have that incredibly deep expertise and understanding. If that then becomes the next hottest target those people are pivotal to realising the potential for that. And they may not (in some cases they may) but in other cases, they may not be the people that are best placed to realize the potential of their more academic research interests and discoveries.

Julie Gould: 05:03

Javier Garcia Martinez agrees. He has worked across the two sectors in the world of chemical engineering. Whilst working as a professor of chemistry at the University of Alicante in Spain in 2006, Javier set up a spin off company called Rive technologies out of MIT, where he had previously spent some time working as a postdoc before he moved to Spain.

For him, the work in his spin off company in industry and the work in academia were intricately linked, and working across the two sectors felt incredibly natural to him.

Javier Garcia Martinez 05:34

These are not two different worlds. I never had the feeling I was doing two different things. It was always the same thing. I was studying, discovering better catalysts, you know, in my academic lab, also in my company, and at the same time talking to customers, to investors, to raise money, and to put that into a commercial plan.

So to me, it feels all part of the same thing. It’s our own mindset that puts different activities in different silos.

Julie Gould: 06:07

We do this in our everyday lives too. We try to compartmentalize our activities so that we can tackle them better. We put on one metaphorical hat for one task, and then take that hat off, before putting on the other metaphorical hat to handle a different task.

I do it with my children and my work all the time. One hat for work, one hat for kids, but really, they're all part of one big hat system. My system, my work, my life. And each part of that life influences the other all the time. And Javier believed the same. His work in industry impacts his work in academia, and vice versa.

Javier Garcia Martinez: 06:43

Being an academic made me a better entrepreneur, gave me rigour, allowed me to understand my catalysts better. It gives me the right way of overcoming difficult challenges.

But at the same time, being in industry, I think, has made me a much better educator, because now I have a better understanding of how industry operates. And in the chemical sector, that's critically important.

And I think the students also realize, and actually know this, when a faculty member has some industrial experience, it's just not the content that you can convey. You can teach, it's also attitudes. It's a mindset is a much global perspective. It’s seeing the problem from different angles.

Julie Gould: 07:29

The benefits of collaborations and cross sector working are clear. But it's not easy. There are different groups of people you will work with, each with different working cultures and goals.

Javier Garcia Martinez: 07:39

You know, when you are working with your students, your PhD students completely different when you are dealing with your co workers or with investors. So you need to be ready to learn to deal with different cultures. And different people who come with different objectives. Different people will be there because they have different goals, right? So you need to recognize that.

Julie Gould: 08:00

But by facing these challenges, says Javier, there are many skills that you can gain, like how to manage…

Javier Garcia Martinez: 08:06

….our own time and set up your priorities, to recognize your weaknesses. And to delegate. So maybe you cannot be doing everything, or you cannot do it now. Working in teams is extremely important. You need to realize that you cannot do everything on your own. That's mistake, typical from academics, right.

So we do many things: research, teaching, administration, and we feel that we can do everything. So you need to be humble. You need to realize that maybe you will be just, you know, the chief scientist of your own company, but you're not going to be running it. So to be humble and recognize what you can do.

Julie Gould: 08:44

Taking on this challenge will also give you some perspective of what's important in your working career, says Javier. When you're a full time academic your work is driven by the need to publish. But this isn't as important when you spend time in industry.

Javier Garcia Martinez: 08:58

Maybe you're not going to publish as much, but maybe you will have more patents, or you will have a company. So you need to recognize your CV will be more diverse, it will be different. And in a way I think, is better, because we are looking at CVs every day. and it's very difficult to win the publication race, right. Who has more publication? That's a difficult win. But maybe your CV is going to be richer, you're going to have you know, experiences that other people don't have.

Julie Gould: 09:34

Nessa Carey, who we've heard from in previous episodes in this series, is excited about the collaborative efforts between the sectors.

Nessa Carey: 09:41

Those are hugely valuable, both in terms of income to universities. So in the UK, for example, that brings about £1.3bn a year, at least, to the universities.

But they're also hugely valuable in that they stimulate greater productivity, they stimulate greater inventiveness. And they create a situation where the more that two sectors work together, the more comfortable they get working together. So it's really creating much more of partnership models and much more opportunities just to appreciate the strengths of the other side.

Julie Gould: 10:15

A very recent collaboration came as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nessa Carey: 10:20

So a classic example at the moment would be the development of the AstraZeneca vaccine that was done completely hand in hand with the University of Oxford. And that's a very big profile, big high profile example of where the two sectors aren't operating separately. They're really working on the edges of both their expertise to create something greater than they could do if they only operated on their own.

And we see that replicated at all sorts of levels. From those huge collaborations, all the way down to very small collaborations between industry and academia, where both parties are working for the same purpose. They have a shared aim and a shared outcome that they want to reach.

Julie Gould: 11:02

One of the longest running collaborations between academia and industry in the UK is the division of signal transduction therapy at the University of Dundee in Scotland, which has been running since 1998.

This division, which was set up as a collaboration between academia and pharmaceutical companies, has been directed by Dario Alessi since 2012. And he told me that in order to run successful collaborations, the key ingredients are trust and communication.

Dario Alessi: 11:30

Firstly, for us, and the companies you work with, there's a strong desire to collaborate. From the outset we have these complementary technologies and approaches, and we want to work together to take an idea into a potential drug target. So we know we have to work together to to achieve that.

And then often, with the project at the beginning, it’s super exciting, everything's working. You have a plan that looks good. And then you often run into some serious unexpected difficulties, you know, quite early on, and maybe later on. And, you know, you have to take a step back.

A lot of hard work is often needed to overcome these hurdles that you come across. And communication can't be underestimated. either. I think for every project I work on with the company I make sure we have one or two-hour monthly meetings with the company where every team member involved in the projects attends.

We present all the data, all the problems we have, and discuss and even if things aren't working, but the company sees that you're putting you're really hard into the project. You're trying everything possible. The postdocs working really hard. And, you know, everything is being done to try and address the problem. They'll understand that. And, you know, you know, I think that that helps a lot as well. You know, maintaining dialogue and keeping both sides, you know, quite happy.

And, I think those are the the key things, the key ingredients that's, that's needed to maintain a long term project.

Julie Gould: 13:23

Another type of collaboration comes with data. There are companies that collect data on all our daily activities. They have become part of society. And one of these companies is Facebook.

They have, in the last few years, started working with academics sharing their data to better understand what is happening in society, and how it (the company) can benefit society. But also, the company wants to be transparent.

Chaya Nyak is head of Facebook's open research and transparency team. And they work with researchers using three different models of collaboration.

Chaya Nayak: 13:56

We recongise that independent research is really important. And what we're trying to do, especially on the open research and transparency team, is build pathways where we can provide data access to researchers so that they can analyze the data, retain their independence, and then publish without any of our input, except a review to make sure that they're not any violating any privacy issues.

We do collaborative partnerships with researchers, where we say we want to come together, use our mutually or use our kind of skill sets that we each have in order to produce something that we think will be beneficial to society.

And then there are also times where academics will join Facebook as contractors in order to work on either research for a particular product that we have, or to be able to do research in partnership with our research organizations inside of the company.

Julie Gould: 14:45

They use all three of these models because there is no one size fits all, says Chaya.

Chaya Nayak: 14:50

We don't think that one model is 100% correct and can be used all the time. For instance, collaborations are really important because there might be information that a Facebook researcher knows that an independent researcher doesn't know or can't know.

Independence is important because we want to make sure that there is independent and credible research about Facebook and our impact on society.

And then sometimes having the researcher come into the company, for instance, if they're advising on a product, is also really beneficial to us. And so we think all three models are really important.

Julie Gould: 15:23

Collaborations, as we've heard, aren't easy. Yes, trust and communication are key ingredients.

But there are fundamental differences in cultures across the sectors that might mean things get lost in translation. And in the next episode of this series, we're going to look at what those fundamental differences are, and how the people running the collaborations can help smooth them.

Thanks for listening. I'm Julie Gould.

Nature Careers


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