A Career Niche at the Interface of Academia and Industry

David Ràfols has an interest in science that he describes as innate. As a child, he says, he was “always … wondering about the why of things.” Later, as a biology student, he assumed he would end up in academic science. The “objective was research,” he says. “But life can go differently.”

Ràfols’s student experience wasn’t limited to the academic lab. He also worked in industry early on. Before he even completed his first degree, he found that no matter which sector he was working in at the time–academia or industry–the other kept tugging his sleeve. Later in his career, Ràfols, who is now 40, found a way to capitalize on his disparate background and apparently conflicting interests. Aiming to “unite the two worlds which are so far apart from each other,” Ràfols in 2007 launched his own open-innovation company.

Blurring boundaries

Ràfols got a first taste of academic research in Rosa Araujo’s microbiology lab halfway through his 6-year biology degree at the University of Barcelona in his native Spain. At that time, “we were working on bacteriophages as an indicator of water contamination” by bacteria, explains Araujo. Back then, Ràfols also played on a basketball team with staff from the yogurt-making company Danone, and from that connection came the idea that he would study bacteriophages relevant to the dairy industry. The plan “was to start working in the laboratory to learn how to manipulate microorganisms and have knowledge in this field.” After that, he would go on to do a Ph.D., Araujo says.

In the 2 years leading to the completion of his biology degree, Ràfols also started working at Danone, first as an intern and then as a part-time research technician. His research and development efforts focused on the quality of raw materials and of products in the pilot-development phase. He graduated in 1993 but stayed on at Danone for 2 years, taking part in several European research projects involving Danone, the Autnoma University of Barcelona, and other public and private research centers.  

In 1995, Ràfols got a grant from the Spanish Ministry of Education and Science for a staff exchange between public and private labs. He used it to start his Ph.D. studies in Araujo’s lab, in collaboration with Danone. When dairy preparations are infected with bacteriophages, they must be thrown away, which is costly for the company, Ràfols says. His project was to map out all the different strains of viruses able to infect the bacteria used in the production of dairy products.

Moving up the industry

Ràfols’s new career plan became to “progress in the business world without forgetting about the research part,” he says. In 1997, while he was still working at Danone, he started studying part-time for a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree at the University of Barcelona.

After obtaining his MBA in 1999, Ràfols left Danone for a R&D project manager position at lollypop manufacturing company Chupa Chups. After spending a month in Germany learning about making candy, Ràfols was charged with developing new flavors, formulations, and shapes for the sweets, overseeing all phases of their development from concept to market.

In that position, Ràfols got to work closely with several departments. He helped engineers launch new production lines and scale-up new processes into industrial production. He worked together with the finance and marketing departments to keep budgets and deadlines on target. He also ensured that the lollypops met quality and legal standards.

In 2001, Ràfols was given the opportunity to study for a master’s degree in quality management at the Catalan Institute for Technology in Barcelona. He was also promoted to quality control director, a position he held for the next 4 years. During that time, he led the quality and food-safety programs of Chupa Chups plants in Spain, Russia, Mexico, China, and France, overseeing a team of 20. He felt, he says, that he had really “left research. It was more about management.” But “this allowed me to know very well the company, how it works, and the different departments.”  

Going to the interface

Feeling a need to “change air,” Ràfols quit his industry job in 2005 to start working as a technology transfer officer for the Catalan government’s Center for Innovation and Business Development in Barcelona. There, he put local food companies in touch with expert labs to collaborate in developing new products and helped manage the resulting projects. Concurrently, he also served the University of Barcelona in a similar capacity, acting as tech transfer consultant for the university’s Centre for the Transfer of Knowledge, Technology and Innovation.

Ràfols’s observation that in Spain “there is nothing in the private sector” dedicated to facilitating technology transfer between industry and academia inspired him to launch an American-inspired open-innovation company, Conectainnova. Conectainnova is an online platform through which companies call upon registered academics to help them meet their business needs. Scientists may also advertise innovative ideas or research results to initiate collaborative projects with industry.

In Spain, “there are very few people who understand” the needs and potential of both academia and industry, Araujo says, and, thus, there is little interaction between universities and companies. Araujo sees a promising way to push innovation in Ràfols’s company.

Coping with risk

Ràfols financed the company with seed funding from personal contacts made in his previous jobs. At first he worked “alone in a flat,” which he found challenging. But after he submitted his business plan to a start-up incubator in a small city close to Barcelona, he was invited to join, gaining access to infrastructure and expertise.

Last July, Conectainnova won recognition–and a €15,000 cash prize–from the regional government as the best local business initiative of the year. “The objective is to reach a global level,” Ràfols says. The company is not yet profitable, but “we believe that we are well on our way.”

“The risk” of starting a new business “is both personal and professional,” Ràfols says. When you set up your own company you need to “be prepared to make many sacrifices of all kinds.” But at 40, Ràfols feels he has sufficient experience to get the project ahead and sufficient space to bounce back professionally if he needs to. “If things don’t go well, there are solutions,” he says.

Not that he has a plan B. “This doesn’t enter my calculations,” he says. “Once you’ve made the first step, you forget about the risk. … Otherwise, you just don’t get ahead.”

Photo: Courtesy, David Ràfols

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