Building a balanced scientist

When Srinivas Tadigadapa embarked on his research training in the 1990s, he imagined becoming a professor of engineering. But after 7 years as a graduate student and postdoc in academic labs, he felt like he wanted to explore “the other side,” so he took a post—and a gamble—at a startup company called Integrated Sensing Systems, Inc. (ISS) in Ypsilanti Michigan. To his surprise, it was “an outrageously exciting experience,” he recalls. He developed pressure and flow sensors for the semiconductor industry, making use of his research background in microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), and he gained experience in everything from research to manufacturing to team management. But after 4 years at ISS, the desire to become a professor surfaced again, and he left the company to take a tenure-track faculty post at Pennsylvania State University (Penn State), University Park, where he is now a full professor in the electrical engineering department.

Now, though, he wants to pivot back. In part, the reasons are personal. “I have never really altogether come out of that startup experience,” he says of his time at ISS, and he finds himself missing the direct connection to “real life” and having a hand in so many aspects of science and business. He also sees the writing on the academic wall. “There is a massive emphasis on academic and industry partnership, both from funding agencies and lawmakers,” he says. “They’re asking, ‘At the end of the day, where does this [basic] research create jobs?’”

To answer, Tadigadapa has decided to try a yearlong sabbatical at a company, which he plans to use as a springboard to forge a long-term collaboration. He began this stint last fall at MKS Instruments, a midsized sensor and instrument company north of Boston.

Tadigadapa’s is one of many strategies being adopted by a niche group of researchers who have positioned themselves at the nexus of academia and industry. Some work through collaboration, straddling the divide. Others embark on joint postdocs to gain skills from both spheres so that they can better translate basic research to a final product or drug. Still others apply for federal grants targeted specifically at matching academic and industrial partners.

There is a massive emphasis on academic and industry partnership, both from funding agencies and lawmakers. … They’re asking, ‘At the end of the day, where does this [basic] research create jobs?’

Working together seems to offer an ideal solution: industry as an alternate source of revenue for academics, and academics as a source of industrial innovation. Few argue that attempts at collaboration are flourishing. The question is how to build them for success.

Engineering a Win-Win

To launch his sabbatical, Tadigadapa reached out to a longtime industry colleague, Stephen Bart, director of MEMS transducer development at MKS, and pitched the idea as a means to generate a working collaboration. At first, Bart was skeptical. The idea was a bit unorthodox. But Bart knew that MKS had long wanted to explore a problem related to pressure sensor functioning for which the company lacked expertise in-house. And Tadigadapa was offering that know-how, inexpensively: MKS only had to pay for a portion of Tadigadapa’s sabbatical salary, facilities use, and travel expenses. MKS would also gain access to core facilities at Penn State and graduate students in Tadigadapa’s laboratory.

What’s more, Tadigadapa was willing to forego publication for the short term—though he did negotiate permission for his graduate students to write theses and publish on their part of the larger work. And Penn State was willing to let go of rights to intellectual property (IP). This was key because, Bart explains, “what makes the collaboration [with academics] valuable to the company is that it owns the IP.”

Although some academics might balk at either concession, Tadigadapa, who began the sabbatical this past fall, had his eye on the big picture: a longer-term partnership and “connecting my research back to the real world.” Bart adds that, despite the conditions required for such collaborations, academic scientists benefit from the opportunity to gain a “broader understanding of the technology and the marketplace, which hopefully can be leveraged into future projects.”

Negotiating the Fine Points

The same kind of bargaining is bubbling up in the pharmaceutical sector, where “interactions between academia and industry have changed dramatically,” says immunologist Sergio Lira, who more than a dozen years ago jumped from a 12-year career in industry to academia to become director of the Immunology Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. A decade ago, companies sought academic rock stars who could be enticed into partnerships by “more or less open-ended research contracts,” he says. “Now, pharma is seeking academic partners who can perform specific, technical work for them.”

To bargain for the access to early discovery, sometimes pharmaceutical companies are willing to share the IP. For example, if the work is at an early, precompetitive stage, the academic institution may negotiate to own the IP, with the company gaining royalty-free rights to it. In exchange, companies can ask for more targeted collaborations: ones in which the academic researcher has knowledge of a specific molecular pathway, for example, or an assay that might be used for screening. The work is conducted in tandem or as a team to eventually deliver a product.

“We cannot go to academia and say, ‘You guys generate some data for us and then we will see if we can use it or not,’” says Pejman Soroosh, a senior scientist at The Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson campus in San Diego, California. “Instead, we generate some data here to show you that we can do some part of the cutting edge science. You do the same. Then we share ideas.”

This blurring of previously distinct lines between early discovery in academia and developing applications in industry is important for academics to understand, Tadigadapa says. It means that the recipe for success is not beginning with a milestone-laden proposal or a project with a hard-and-fast goal. Instead, the focus should be on exploration through collaboration. But collaboration does not mean just putting a group of academics at the table with industry scientists and giving them a mandate. “If you engineer an interaction, it won’t work,” Tadigadapa says. “But if you create a place where the interaction might occur, you’ll produce the ‘love.’”

Start Early

That “place” is as much physical—for example, an academic working in an industrial lab on sabbatical—as it is philosophical: freely sharing potentially proprietary ideas around a conference table, for instance, or allowing some aspect of the work to be published.

The latter is particularly critical to postdocs, who can also get involved in boundary-straddling research. In October 2014, Janssen launched a postdoc program in which participants are paired with two mentors, one from Janssen and the other from partnering academic institutions located nearby their La Jolla facility, including the Scripps Research Institute and the University of Southern California (USC). (In some cases, the academic partner can be based outside of Janssen’s purview.) Postdocs spend 2 years hopping between the two laboratories, exploring mechanisms at the academic bench, for example, while at the same time learning the ins and outs of assay development and team building in the industrial labs. Both those fresh out of graduate school and those already in postgraduate positions can apply.

The program’s goal, as described by Anuk Das, head of scientific innovation at Janssen Human Microbiome Institute and co-founder of the postdoc program, sounds typical of any traditional postdoc stint: “to have a productive project focused on novel research resulting in high-impact publications.” But in the Janssen case, company and academic co-principal investigators (PIs) conceive and guide the project together. The idea is to create what Janssen postdoc mentor James Karras calls a more “balanced scientist,” who can bring the best of academia—its spirit of discovery and innovation—to the more practical realities of industry. Together with Soroosh, Karras co-mentors Gavin Lewis, one of the first three postdocs now in the program.

“As a Ph.D. or postdoc, the academic route is the only route you are trained for,” Lewis says, “but if you really want to do that bench-to-bedside research, you should learn to do both sides of it. That is what will benefit people in the end.” Lewis is not sure upon which side of the academic-industrial fence he will ultimately land, or if he can continue to bounce back and forth across it, but he says he is “leaning” toward the industrial side.

His academic mentor, USC immunologist Omid Akbari, doesn’t mind. Akbari, whose collaboration with Janssen was already in place prior to Lewis’s postdoc, sees the benefits of working closely with industry. It can accelerate his overall lab’s research, he says. By sharing ideas, data, and resources with the Janssen team, his team can more quickly move from research in test tubes to animals and even people, generating more high-impact papers ahead of academic competitors. The company also provides perks, like patent advice from the company’s well-weathered technology transfer office. But, mostly, Akbari likes the avid exchange of ideas he and company researchers enjoy as they meet regularly at conferences. With the partnership in place, “we now have this freedom to talk to each other,” Akbari says.

Get a Grant

That need for free exchange has also prompted agencies such as NSF to launch programs that coax academic and industrial scientists to collaborate. These programs are not new, but they are nonetheless very popular today.

One, called the Industry University Cooperative Research Center (I/UCRC), pulls together clusters of industrial and institutional partners interested in a particular scientific theme or “need.” Typically, industrial members articulate that need and ante up member fees (generally $25,000 to $75,000), which in part support the work by the academics, who then provide a portfolio of precompetitive research projects meant to address the need.

For example, beginning in 2007, NSF had been working with institutions, mostly academic, in Arkansas, offering translational grants to boost innovation. Arkansas-based warehouse retailer Sam’s Club chimed in that it was seeking novel ways to reduce inventory costs. Through NSF, the company partnered with academic engineers and computer scientists at the University of Arkansas and 11 other partner groups at universities around the country. They created an Excel-based simulator to replicate the functionality of the Sam’s Club inventory and logistics software, which shaved off 4%, or up to $70 million annually, of their inventory costs.

For academics, participating in these types of endeavors provides the chance to build a network of collaborators for future projects and offers a much clearer understanding of what industrial collaborators want and need. These are crucial assets given federal agencies’ current push for more translational research, says DasGupta, who led the I/UCRC Program in 2012 and now provides program oversight. He also notes that any IP emerging from the projects belongs to the universities, and companies can get royalty-free, nonexclusive rights.

The students deployed to work on projects can also greatly benefit from the experience of working with industry. “Most industrial members are really there to recruit the next-generation work force,” DasGupta says. The program is meant to “create robust relationships and give the students tremendous visibility.” On average, 30% of students who graduate each year get jobs from industry members, he says.

On a smaller scale, NSF also sponsors a GOALI (Grant Opportunities for Academic Liaison with Industry) program, which provides money not for centers of many but partnerships of a few. Money goes to support faculty, postdocs, and students who want to conduct research in an industrial setting. Typically the academic submits a research proposal to a specific NSF directorate. If the proposal has an industrial partner and a cooperative research agreement, which spells out how any resulting IP will be managed, it becomes eligible for additional GOALI funding, typically $75,000, although the price tag can vary depending on the program.

Whether through a sabbatical, postdoc, or grant, “this kind of partnership is becoming more and more inevitable,” Tadigadapa says. The message to scientists is that those who can establish themselves at the interface increase their chances of thriving. “We are building the way toward the future … because it is the only way.”

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