A Measured Dose of Corporate Support

Working on the biomedical frontline, battling crippling parasitic illnesses such as river blindness and elephantiasis, Roger Prichard needs all the research help he can get, so in his search for funding he doesn’t limit himself to the usual suspects. With almost 3 decades of fruitful ties to the biopharmaceutical industry under his belt, Prichard, professor of parasitology and chair of biotechnology at McGill University in Montreal, believes that the benefits of a commercial partnership go well beyond the mighty dollar. But, he notes, it’s not a panacea.

“Corporate sponsorship can [provide] not only … funding but also access to information that’s difficult to pull together, insight into techniques that they are experienced with, and access to resources that would otherwise be unavailable.” Prichard believes that commercial bonds work best when blending financial, intellectual, and in-kind support. But he most relishes the opportunities to exchange ideas with his corporate counterparts. Such collaborations allow him to keep on top of breaking discoveries while offering the benefits of significant intellectual stimulation. “In my case … it’s been very helpful in having input that’s not just ‘we pay you some money for some project’–it’s been more than that,” says Prichard.

A Symbiotic Marriage

Prichard’s corporate experience can be traced back to his Ph.D. days in Australia where his supervisor’s links with the pharmacological industry helped him to land a scholarship from Merck to do work on parasitic diseases. Three decades later, Prichard’s laboratory is conducting vanguard research in understanding the genetics of drug resistance in parasitic nematodes, which infect more than 350 million people in dozens of developing countries. He is developing tools for monitoring and controlling these diseases by combining pharmacology, molecular genetics, and cell biology.

Prichard’s efforts have attracted support from pharma giants such as Merck and Glaxo, as well as governmental and foundation backing from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Fonds de Recherche de la Nature et des Technologies du Quebec, and the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, to the tune of over $12 million in grants.

While Statistics Canada reports show commercial funding of research and development has nationally remained stable at 12% the past decade, more and more researchers are seizing the corporate-based opportunities offered them.

Prichard, whose company-funding level sits around a healthy 20% mark, argues that even if companies (especially biopharmaceutical firms) are filling certain funding gaps at universities, it’s crucial for academics to maintain a balance of funding sources. University researchers should not be allowing governmental granting agencies to slip by the wayside, he suggests. When it comes time for tenure, promotion, and salary increases, noncorporate funding is typically given much more weight, “it’s a springboard of core funding that allows you then to do good research that’s of interest to companies,” explains Prichard, “without it, you’re not able to keep up with the high quality of research.”

Eyes Wide Open

To Prichard, the scientific future looks bright for Canada. Scientific advances have played an ever more critical role in the nation’s economy in recent years, and both government and industry have taken notice. Whereas some companies a decade ago may have only lent their might to academic research that was likely to result in a relatively quick return, we now find them pitching in on higher quality, more basic research projects that are not necessarily in line with their core work but still on their radar.

With this said, it’s important to go in with open eyes, mindful of guarding the validity and integrity of your science. Prichard, like many other leading academics, recommends that universities accept corporate funding only if it does not limit the ability of researchers to publish their findings.

Knocking on the Door of Opportunity

In a funding climate characterized by fierce competition and financial belt-tightening by federal and provincial governments, it seems only natural for many Canadian academic researchers to seek out industrial partnerships. But what’s the inside scoop on attracting potential corporate sponsors? How do you go about getting your share of the pie?

The key to success in opening up a rewarding relationship, warns Prichard, is not to expect big handouts. “Go in with modest suggestions about getting support or collaborating with them.”

Company scientists and science administrators very often attend conferences, which makes them a great venue to hook up, particularly to make initial contacts and do the time-honored networking ritual. “Very often I would be at a conference where companies would be there as well, and I would present a paper where then, afterwards, I have a meeting with them,” explains Prichard. “You have a cup of coffee with somebody from the company and tell them about the general direction of your work and things that may be of interest and just try to get them interested.”

Prichard suggests following up with telephone conversations, e-mails, and mutual visits. If a prospective company happens to be doing research that looks interesting, invite a leading scientist in that company to come and give a seminar in your department. “That gives you an opportunity to sit down with … that individual, and discuss both [your work and the company’s work] and look for links,” adds Prichard.

Less often, a company will make the first move, knocking on your door looking for help solving technical problems and advancing development of their products and technologies. Says Prichard, “Usually when [representatives of] the company approaches a researcher in a university, they very often have a more direct need related to their product development in mind.”

There is no crystal ball, and no hidden doors, when seeking commercial backing. As in other areas of academic science, success normally hinges on active publishing and getting out to the right conferences so that people know what you’re doing. You have to be willing to put some time into discussing your ideas and engaging with colleagues. Prichard believes it boils down to communication skills, professionalism in research, and–most important of all–old-fashioned good work.

“It’s important to have a solid research program, work that will peak a company’s interest, and then you need credibility,” says Prichard, “and you get all that from doing good, basic science.”

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