Transcript - Episode 2 - Research in Industry vs Academia
Updated: Jul 5, 2021
Industry or Academia?? Putting our discussion into words :)
Research in Industry vs. Academia
M: welcome to another episode of IMNANO
I: Putting the I in I M Nano, I am your host Irfani
M: and I am your M, your host, Monika
I: And today we will be talking about doing research in industry versus academia.
M: So what we mean by that is how is industry relevant to nanotechnology and the research that we do. Well, the European commission and UNESCO has labeled nanotechnology as one of the six key enabling technologies that will contribute to the growth of multiple industry sectors investors from startups to singular projects and big companies are looking to promote nanotechnology in almost every field.
We're mainly looking at primarily donors. Very largely. As well as China and many Asian and middle Eastern countries looking for opportunities and. Well, so looks like the industry, academic and government sectors in many countries are investing heavily in the development of nanotechnology, but we want to discuss how the research is conducted in these different domains, how they differ, what the goals are and what we have personally experienced to go from here.
I: Wow so looks like the industry, academic, and government sectors in many countries are investing heavily in the development of nanotechnology. But we want to discuss about how the research is conducted in these different domains. How they differ, what the goals are, and what we have personally experienced. To go from here, it’s a perfect opportunity to introduce our new segment called the Lit Update, where we discuss about a current paper in the field. Monika, what is the lit update for today?
M: Yes! The literature update for today is from a paper by Shultz and Campeau who attained their PhDs in chemistry and are now Process Research and Development Chemists at Merck and Co industries. The paper is titled Harder Better Faster published in Nature Chemistry from the middle of 2020. Molecules are nanoscale, they are small compounds so I justify this choice being nano related!
All right. So what are the key points and main findings of this paper? Well, for the most part in drug development technologies, you have to screen many different target molecules or synthetic pathways. So the ways to reaching a certain target and you have to play with leaving groups, protecting groups, solvent green chemistry, different catalysts, different ligands, and you only need nanograms of material in drug discovery.
But if you want to make a drug compound, you go from maybe 10,000 different molecular compound pathways or molecules themselves as products. And you take these leads, maybe a few hundred, you get that are promising out of that over 10,000. Then about four to five actual molecules or components can be scaled up and useful as drug candidates and optimize and made in the best way possible with the least amount of ways.
So once you have the method, you kind of scale up, manufacture, you do clinical trials, make it in kilogram batches, going from nano very tiny in the development stage, all the way to kilos. And then you finally, after 10 years, approximately and maybe around 2.5 billion US dollars invested, you can get a drug on the market.
Basically in academic papers often we see these unique catalysts or ligands that are developed, you know, from very niche chemical paths. Certain setups of glassware or incubation techniques, they're unique to squall labs and not so much to the large scale. So it's different making that connection between academic research and the industry research.
So it's imperative that the process is efficient, robust, environmentally friendly when we, as academic scientists are developing for the industrial scale and ultimately getting our products to the market.
I: Oh wow so, what would be the key takeaway from this paper other than it is a lot of work to get a drug product out to the market. You know what, I appreciate my pharmacy counter a lot more now.
M: Yeah, exactly. For the most part, another key takeaway is that basically there's a big disconnect between the goals of academia versus the goals in research of industry. The authors really emphasize that we need collaboration between industry and academia to bridge the two together because there's a disconnect between our group. And obviously this has pros and cons when we do collaborative projects. And I would like to elaborate that in many academic papers or publications that we can obtain through scientific journal articles, yields are fairly low overall, maybe one to 5%. And as long as we have the yields and it's in a unique and novel, new way, well, in academia, that's still publishable, right?
M: But in industry, you have to get large kilograms scales. You want to make it the most efficient way possible and sustainable, and you don't want to waste time and resources getting that. So I'd like to quote from the paper and that the authors "invite our colleagues across the industry to engage academic scientists in the fundamental science needed for ground-breaking advancement and we encourage honest (and, perhaps at times, uncomfortable) discussions of ‘will my chemistry ever be applied/adopted?"
So they encourage everyone sharing problems while protecting intellectual property is possible. And given that novel transformations and disconnections rarely require exact chemical structures to facilitate discussion. They really want to encourage and facilitate discussion and bridging and collaboration together. Even though we don't have the exact details all straightened out.
M: Right. And so it is tricky for student researchers, for example, that are stuck in the middle. Isn't that right Irfani?
I: Yeah. So I did collaborate it with a few companies while doing my PhD and there are definitely pros and cons to this experience.
I think this is becoming more common recently because as you mentioned earlier, a lot of collaboration between sectors, academia and big or small companies are happening in this key technology, and it's very encouraged. And so what that means is a lot of graduate students who are starting their academic career from academic labs can now work with companies. It's good for students who wants to have more exposure that industry.
What I really like working with a company is that the research that I work on is translated into a real life product that can impact other people's lives in a shorter time frame than academic research. Since the company is one to build products, to sell.
In academia, the timeframe is longer for an idea to come to fruition. It also helps me to understand the economic and business aspects of the sectors. I also got to know more people outside of academia, so my network expanded. I wouldn't have been exposed to these aspects if I didn't have collaborations with companies.
But on the other hand, there are some challenges as well, for sure. When I was starting out in academia, I had a lot of ideas that I would like to pursue and, more often than not, take some time for these ideas to show viable and good results. So although I plan out when I would like to get the good results, the deadline is relatively flexible. But based on my experience, working with our companies because of the different factors involved, such as funding and investors, product launch, the deadline is a little bit more strict. Also, I have less intellectual freedom. And so what I mean by this is that if I think, oh, you know what, we could try another method and see if it works. But if it's something that hasn't been really done before and may take longer, we may not pursue that line of idea at all. With companies. We also have to sign NDAs to make sure that what we work on doesn't get leaked out within the agreed period of time.
M: Wait a minute. What exactly is an NDA?
I: So an NDA is non-disclosure agreement. So it basically means that everything is top secret and proprietary. And if you violate those terms, there are severe legal consequences. So, you know, it's not like one of those terms and agreements that you just click yes to, mindlessly, to whenever you sign up for it. So it's a lot more legally binding than that.
M: Yes. Be careful.
I: Yeah. Another thing is, as a graduate student, uh, one of your goals is that you want to get a lot of publications out, but if the patent is not approved yet from the company, we can't publish the paper. And also you won't be able to discuss it and exchange ideas with other researchers when you go to the conferences, right?
M: Yes. Excellent point. That's an important aspect for all graduate students publishing!
I: For sure. So because of the different goals, there are differentpros and cons to the collaboration between academia and research.
M: Interesting. So to summarize kind of, what would you say are some of the benefits of being an industrial researcher specifically for nanotech?
I: I personally really love knowing that the project I contributed in translated into a real life product. I mean, after knowing the process from the beginning and then spending hours in the lab, it's really gratifying to know that the product is out there in the market. I also enjoy learning the business aspect and expanding my network through this exposure.
I get to talk with non-scientists, who can provide insights into what issues are currently present in the field. And then we can discuss how nanotechnology solutions can be used to solve it.
M: Yes, agreed. But also on the other hand, I would like to advocate, you know, on the academic side, academia allows for curiosity, but there are certain restrictions in terms of administrative tasks and, you know, grant writing. You need to write grants to secure your own funding, typically on the college or university side, which if you work for a private lab, you can be a lone wolf if you want, you don't have to worry about securing money as that with the companies selling their products, you know, that makes your money. So you can focus maybe more on the development side Right?
So there's not so much as also I've noticed a fostering of hands-on learning or mentorship. That is more so on the academic side of things, right? Maybe. Yeah. So expanding knowledge and teaching or mentoring is a bigger proponent of being in, you know, college or university as a researcher, maybe.
I: Yeah. In academia, I observed that we can develop one-on-one connections with distinguish faculties in their field, and then also build a scientific community with peers, faculty, and organizations on and off campus where you can freely discuss and exchange ideas. And this has allowed scientific endeavor to really flourish. Now, maybe in accompany, you can get a little worried about NDAs, which can be very inhibiting. So you are limited to what ingredients in your recipe that you're allowed to discuss about when talking with experts.
M: It's very true, but also it's not always the case as maybe in some larger corporations, they have certain innovation contests as well that I was looking for like Merck or Pfizer. They do those kinds of type of innovation events and they offer a lump sum of money. I, it also works as recruitment, so it's mostly geared towards students or people outside their company. Right. And the one I highly suggest for our listeners is the Merck innovation cup. It's an amazing opportunity. We're going to link it in the description is open to students at all levels from business to science, but nano knowledge can come very much in handy for this event. So it's always good to have some of this nanotech info in your scientific toolbox.
I: So overall it depends on the individual and what your career goals are, but nevertheless, nanotechnology is up and coming in whichever path you choose.
M: Oh yeah. Overall career paths or schooling paths in terms of STEM as a graduate student can take on two different perspectives, obviously with Irfani, she had was more on the industry partnership side, got to learn about that and is possibly going to have lots of patents. Whereas on my end, I was given a lot of freedom for discovery and discussion, but no patents are in my name after my degree, unfortunately.
I: Right, there are pros and cons for sure. Well, that's all for today. You know, we will be inviting more people to this podcast. Some people from industry academia. Even government to tell us their perspectives, so stay tuned and take care!
M: And stay curious!
Innovation Cup link (Americas)
UNESCO Science Report: Towards 2030 by United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Paris: UNESCO Publishing, 2017, 820pp,
Lit Update: Schultz, D. and L.-C. Campeau (2020). "Harder, better, faster." Nature Chemistry 12(8): 661-664.