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Academia (vs. Industry)

What Industry Would Like to Hear About

Here’s a good paper from Phil Baran and co-workers in Accounts of Chemical Research on the relationship between industrial and academic research. It’s illustrated with examples from his own work, such as the ingenol synthesis, and with new synthetic methods discovered in collaboration with Bristol-Myers Squibb, Pfizer, Eisai, and Sigma-Aldrich.
The article uses these to show that there can be useful, productive collaborations between organic chemistry groups from both sides of the field. The academic side can bring in ideas and techniques that industry might not have the time or patience to look into, but the industrial side can in turn bring in expertise from areas that don’t even exist in most academic settings, along with some real-world focus. We all have known these things for some time, though – or we should have. But collaborations as useful as the ones that Baran’s group have had are relatively rare. Part of that, of course, is that he and his group are extremely productive, but I think that there’s another factor at work, too.
My own take is that too many deals are made that are too loose and open-ended, in a sort of “Gosh, if you guys discover something we’ll probably pay you some money for it eventually” way, which doesn’t motivate anyone to focus much. Better for industry to go to academia saying “You know, we’d really like to be able to do something like Reaction X”, a more specific goal. It might be harder for academic groups to approach industry, though, since they may or may not have a good idea of what people are looking for. To that end, I wonder if it would be useful to have something out there in public, a list of unsolved problems that would be sure to attract interest if someone has a way to approach them.
David Hilbert I’m not, but I’d be glad to hear nominations for such things in the comments. My own contribution, to start things off, is going to be uncontroversial (for once). Industrial organic chemists, it’s safe to say, are going to be very interested to hear about any new late-stage oxidation or fluorination chemistries – the sorts of things where you could imagine taking a collection of final drug-like compounds, running them through the process, and producing a reasonable number of new derivatives in one pass. There’s already work going on in this area, of course – I told you I wasn’t going to be controversial. But anything reliable in this area is definitely worth hearing about, and that’s what I think a list like this should be: a collection of things that are guaranteed to spark interest. Any ideas?

38 comments on “What Industry Would Like to Hear About”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Outsourcing industries small projects to university chemistry groups helps noone, except the PI and the company. Foreign post docs or the students get nothing but slave work

  2. Fluorine Chemist says:

    As a PhD student currently working on several projects with industry, I have experienced both ways of this interaction and I have found it extremely useful. Industry can present very interesting problems, that can be fun to work on, but to me the most valuable outcome wasn’t chemistry related, but to learn how to organise meetings/teleconferences etc. efficiently and how to cooperate with people with different skillsets. With a project where we approached industry, it was really satisfying to see other people reproducing my chemistry and scaling it up. I think there should be more of this kind of collaboration, because it can be beneficial for both parties.

  3. Ukon77 says:

    In terms of a public list of unsolved problems, Nature’s open innovation pavillion seems to be doing something similar already. There are some challenges that are purely organic chemistry.

  4. mirbane says:

    @#1 Totally agree. This is just another way for industry and PIs to leverage cheap labor funded largely by tax payer dollars for personal gain. I am lucky enough to work in a lab where my PI is interested in sharing any potential financial and professional benefits fairly (or at least as fairly as is reasonably possible given the massive PI/student power imbalance). However, I know for many (most) this is not the case.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I have been a student in a synthesis group. When my PI was collaborating with big pharma companies, foreign post docs or students had to work on these projects (usually med chem projects). The company kept all the results and the PI was trying to get patents on these projects. No papers, no extra income to the postdocs, and the results were not presentable for work interviews (confidentiality). Put a stop to companies outsourcing to university groups !!!

  6. Idi Amine says:

    Isn’t this more common in Europe where pharmaceutical companies often sponsor PhDs?

  7. Anonymous says:

    Here’s a problem that we should ALL focus on solving:
    Develop a completely new approach to drug discovery that (on average) delivers a positive return on investment.
    Because if we don’t, then we’re all fired and out on the streets.

  8. a. nonymaus says:

    What industry wants, industry can hire graduates to work on. I’d rather my tax dollars go towards research that is driven by a desire for fundamental understanding, not short-term profit.

  9. Anonymous says:

    #1, #5, totally disagree. I had a couple of small projects as a grad student, where I synthesized target molecules and the lab got paid a fee. Kept me from having to TA over the summer, got to talk to some real honest-to-goodness industrial chemists in a project setting, and I got to do some really interesting chemistry that I wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise. I loved it, and could actually say I made something, as opposed to the massive NP total synthesis I was involved in (which I also loved, just didn’t ever get close to the target compound.) I argue something similar is a very useful exercise, as long as it’s a complement to original, thesis or postdoc-worthy work.

  10. Cato the Elder says:

    I think this can be a good idea, as long as it is clear from the beginning how/when the results get published. I have several colleagues involved in these projects who can’t publish their results (or even disclose them in job talks!) and thus are hurting when applying for their next position.

  11. anon the III says:

    I imagine the graduate students who wanted to learn about complex molecule synthesis and were instead forced to work as a CRO are thrilled about this.

  12. Anonymous says:

    I think this can be a good idea, as long as it is clear from the beginning how/when the results get published. I have several colleagues involved in these projects who can’t publish their results (or even disclose them in job talks!) and thus are hurting when applying for their next position.
    I think that the expectations need to be set up early. Either you’ll be able to talk about or publish the work or the money that’s earned goes towards supporting you during your actual graduate work, like #10. I’d also assume that this work isn’t taking up 100% of anyone’s time. If it is and your adviser doesn’t seem to care that you’re working on things that won’t advance your thesis project, you may have picked the wrong adviser.
    That said, I wish someone would turn down the volume on the Bitter Meter a bit around here.

  13. CAprof says:

    Years ago, Lilly spun-out an interesting idea they called Innocentive. You can easily find it with a Google search. Look under the tab for “challenge center” and you’ll find lists of projects with rewards for various milestones. True, some are much more specific and defined than others, but it’s a far cry from “do something cool and we might give you some money for it” that was mentioned in the original post.

  14. Ted says:

    I spend most of my time, nowadays, trying to do just this thing. In our case, our company is working in so many different areas (our focus is on outcomes, not specific technologies) that we cannot conceivably carry expertise across our horizon. Instead, we seek out academic and commercial partners to stitch solutions together.
    For the most part, there is no shortage of academics who have developed interesting technology that needs direction to find practical application. We frequently find interesting ideas that are solely focused on “then we read it out with a smart phone and upload it to the cloud” as an endpoint. This shows all the creativity of saying “they all lived happily ever after.”
    At the same time, there are many companies who are forced to winnow their technology to only the most likely or immediately profitable outcomes. Many of these companies are quite excited to be able to reduce their upfront development costs and expand their potential range.
    In the best cases, we fund academic work that refines that lab’s tools for a specific use that we are interested in. We incorporate that use case into a device that we co-develop with a business partner that can make money bringing it to the field.
    Of course, the whole thing requires a billionaire philanthropist or two in the middle, so I’m not sure it’s an extensible model.

  15. John Harrold says:

    I did a post doc at the Center for Protein Therapeutics in Buffalo. It is basically a consortium between the pharmaceutical sciences department and industry that was setup to answer questions about large molecule PK/PD and to train folks in this area. If I remember correctly different companies contribute at different levels to fund Post Docs. The different companies work with the faculty members to define proposals for year-long projects (that may be extended) intended to answer specific industry questions. The proposals are collected and the different companies vote on which proposals to fund. I believe the level of funding they contribute determines the number of votes they have.
    I think this worked out really well in terms of training people in a specific area (large molecule PKPD modeling) and answering focused research questions in a timely manner.

  16. Ted says:

    Starting in the late 90’s, there was a 3-way collaboration between MIT, Bayer and Rhodia to develop the utility of the Buchwald chemistry.
    This was largely quite successful. The two companies agreed on beneficial test cases that they could refine through focused development.
    The net result was papers, IP and greater adoption of improved chemistry.

  17. Anon says:

    Did anyone else find it odd that the authors declared NO conflict of interest?

  18. watcher says:

    As you posted, it’s important to spell our very specifically the obligations, responsibilities, and deliverables for each side in any such agreement. And even then, it’s up to the true professionalism and integrity of all partners to work with commitment and diligence toward the objectives. I’ve seen too many such attempts and too much money that have gone nowhere when one or the other party, usually the academic “partner” did not maintain their part of the partnership. Instead, they did what they wanted to do with the upfront payment(s), and then shrugged with the industrial group threatened to walk away. What did they have to lose except any further deals with the same partner? As we all know, no company would dare take the academic to court for breach of contract since it would be made to look like an infringement on academic freedom. And so, beware of your academic partner. I suspect there will be many who post angry retorts to my comments, but these are true observations, true events.

  19. milkshake says:

    Innocentive is a particularly nasty rip-off for the solvers, and a sweet deal for the “seekers”. Stay the hell away.

  20. MoMo says:

    Innocentive and those guys at Nine Sigma get under my skin. You are better off going to s Chuck E Cheese’s for funding by playing Skeeball.

  21. SP says:

    This seems like a positive step. If I understand the numbers correctly, $50M for 50 5-year awards = $200k per year for salary/benefits/overhead which is between reasonable and low depending on what part of the country you’re in and what your institute’s indirect rate is.

  22. cookingwithsolvents says:

    re: publishing
    It’s the PI’s responsibility to only accept funds in a way that enhances his students and PD’s experience. Some PIs don’t care or don’t know how to negotiate beneficial contracts around this issue. The interaction between academia and industry should be stronger rather than weaker.

  23. milkshake says:

    @23 for your disarming hopefulness, you shall be condemned to a 666 year-long postdoc with Katritzky, in a poorly airconditioned lab at Purgatory University in Painsville

  24. Anonymous says:

    I think the worthwhileness of the experience for the students depends entirely on how it is set up. For example, the Baran collaborations take on problems that generate high-impact publications for the students, which is good. My advisor, on the other hand, took on projects that involved scaling up literature compounds, for which the students received no recognition or remuneration. That was bad.

  25. aChiromics says:

    What if a PI forces his students to work on projects for his own startup drug company when they get behind on deadlines…? Is this an example of “academic-industry partnerships?”

  26. ChemSoup says:

    “something out there in public, a list of unsolved problems that would be sure to attract interest” – I believe such online platforms already exist, namely Innocentive and Kaggle.

  27. Anonymous says:

    Pharma should make a list of problems they liked solved, open up a think tank, and throw a whole bunch of Phd and undergraduate interns at the problem and let them do whatever they wanted in order to solve it. Make them also develop a business plan for their ideas. Offer a prize to the winners. The interns could be hired for a fraction of the cost.
    Both parties may come away happy. Pharma gets problems solved w/ a business plan, students get experience and even a salary. Practically anything is better than grad school stipend.

  28. Hap says:

    @13: People’d probably be less bitter if the actions of companies (getting rid of anyone that might have useful skills and knowledge) weren’t at odds with the stated reasons for academic-industry partnerships (access to skills and knowledge). As such, it looks like using government money to train an oversupply of labor while replacing expensive (semi-)permanent workers with cheap temporary (or at least time-limited) ones. Maybe I’m just cynical, though.
    If the employment picture looked better, though, then industrial experience (as a part of a grad education) could be useful – working on problems that someone cares about, learning skills that industry would want of potential employees, or just a change of pace. I was cynical about it, but the “lead-oriented synthesis” stuff (without the buzzwords) could be a target – finding chemistries that work with compounds and solvents that might be relevant to biological systems, for example. I can’t define it better, though, and for an academic-industrial project, it should be defined more clearly and particularly, or it won’t do anything you could already do (well, if companies employed researchers and academics had funding).

  29. Luke Gamon says:

    @18: Yes, odd that there isn’t a conflict of interest explicitly stated in the paper. That said – they were pretty obvious about the fact that all of the work was incentivized by industry.
    To the cynics – Yes, there have been poorly executed Academic-Industry partnerships in the past. However, this discussion should be focused on how to engage most productively for all parties involved (Corporation, University, PI, postdocs and students). While I can’t speak from experience, I’ve heard comments from researchers at Monash University that bureaucratic BS has rolled around for so long on some collaborations that they’ve eventually been canned in frustration. A pharma was effectively willing to fund a student/researcher but the negotiations are something universities in Australia handle VERY poorly. We envy US academia-industry engagement levels.

  30. Some idiot says:

    @20: Milkshake, sounds like you have had some personal experience with Innocentive. I would be _very_ interested in hearing a bit more about it….?
    Long story…
    But on the topic, I think collaborations between industry and academia are fine, as long as everything is open on the table first (including possibilities for publication etc).

  31. The Aqueous Layer says:

    Baran is up-front about the relationship with these companies in the paper. Typically when people cite a “conflict of interest” it means that they own stock in the company they are writing about.

  32. milkshake says:

    @31: The seeker gets your finished piece of work and afterwards it decides to pay for it (if it feels like so), and the award selection process is completely hidden from you as a solver so all kinds of cheating is enabled by default. But the actual rip off is a part of design – the seekers collects input of hundreds of people, and pays maybe one, and with peanuts. Also, when you read the many of the Innocentive problems, you typically see someone offering a 15k award for an industrial problem solution that is going to be worth few millions, and the demanded solution parameters are often so unrealistic that no-one can possibly meet them. And so on. A bad deal for desperate solvers.

  33. mjs says:

    From a more biological angle… Several years ago Ira Mellman of Genentech gave an excellent talk on drug discovery at the Am Soc Cell Biology meeting. He outlined the whole process, from experiments on cells, to drugs at the drugstore, and pointed out where he thought academic cell biologists could best contribute. Takehome: Don’t bother trying to compete with the industry’s army of medicinal chemists. Concentrate on patient stratification at the cellular level.
    I’d highly recommend going to meeting talks by upper echelon Genentech scientists.

  34. Anonymous says:

    The industry has an army of medicinal chemists? Lately, it’s more like a squad of medicinal chemists or maybe a platoon at best……

  35. Danny says:

    “To that end, I wonder if it would be useful to have something out there in public, a list of unsolved problems that would be sure to attract interest if someone has a way to approach them.”
    You’re all missing the point. Somehow, by some mysterious means the chemical industry has managed to tap an as yet unknown ‘force’ that perpetually transmutes fired chemists into dividends for share holders.
    This force allows the industry to somehow fire thousands of people a year indefinitely. Many chemists I’m told are on their fifth or sixth firing.
    You can find them walking dazed and confused in Walmart parking lots. Vague thoughts of living on canned spam while chained to the bench haunt them.
    Is this you?

  36. Some idiot says:

    @33: Thanks… I thought there were measures to make sure that it was a fair deal both ways, but sounds like that is only “in principle”… :-/

  37. milkshake says:

    It really depends on the project, but one must be super careful and read the fine print/
    If the seeker for example wants you to develop and license a cancer cell line, and the price is right (300k USD), and especially if you are already doing something very similar, it might be worth your time in the lab to give this a try.
    What really pisses me off are requests: “Why don’t you write a technical proposal of this technological problem that meets all these criteria, and propose a suitable commercial partner for us to implement the technology, and we will pay one solver 15k if we like his proposal”

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