‘From the Bench to the Bank’ lecture series

24 May 2013

The 'From the Bench to the Bank' lectures, hosted by the University of Nottingham’s School of Chemistry, are given by high profile speakers from industry, professional bodies and policy-makers. The talks were conceived by Trevor Farren and colleagues in the School’s Business Partnership Unit with the aim to give students and staff a chance to hear about the wider application of science and chemistry beyond traditional academic subjects.

Subjects covered have included science careers, business and entrepreneurialism, and the interactions between academia, industry and government. As organisers, our desire has always been to give audience members insights that broaden their understanding of science and its role in the economy and society. We are very grateful to Joanne Lyall, Executive Director of SCI, 2010-13, and her colleagues for helping to arrange suitable speakers for the lecture series. The focus of the talks fits with the philosophy of the SCI, and we are looking to build upon the partnership in the future.

Who were our speakers?
We have hosted a number of high profile speakers including Joanne Lyall and Carol Boyer-Spooner of CIKTN, who spoke about the roles of their organisations in promoting the chemical sciences. The focus of this year’s series was the direct application of chemistry and related sciences in a commercial setting, and we were delighted to host four excellent speakers - Drs Richard Weaver (Xenogesis), Chris Satterley (EOn), Keith Foster (Syntaxin) and Stuart Jordan (ProMetic BioXciences). The four talks covered a wide breadth of science from cleaning flue gases in coal power stations to the use of botulinum neurotoxin in biotherapeutics. Offering hope for many in the audience, all the speakers reiterated how the technical and professional skills developed during their PhDs and research were critical to their later careers.

Read more about our speakers below

What did this year’s lectures cover?
Most of the talks focused on moving technologies from the lab into commercial products, and the business skills each speaker had to learn in doing so. Not surprisingly, this included key business practises in starting up companies, dealing with customers and managing intellectual property and finance. The speakers also described the twists and turns of their careers and how the skills learnt in academic research had benefitted them in business.

Working in industry and business, what lessons had the speakers learned?
Starting-up or spinning-out a company, as Richard and Keith have done, requires quickly getting to grips with doing business and learning how to talk the language of customers and investors. In small companies everyone plays a part across all functions of the business, and people will need to take on unfamiliar roles. Stuart believes the common sense and skills developed as a research scientist transfer directly to help solve commercial problems.

All the speakers made it clear that communication and collaboration are crucial for success in industry. Chris described how he works with engineers to design the processes which clean the gases emitted from burning coal. Despite differences in the technical language spoken, reaching a common understanding is crucial for success. Communication in a company may not relate solely to technical issues, with Stuart stating how he believed that managers and employees need to cooperate fully to make the correct decisions for the business.

Understanding costs and value and the need to minimise waste are also important and may be something people coming from academia struggle with at first. Whereas the tendency in universities may be to not think about how much solvent, energy or water is used, the same is not true in a small business which needs to keep its bills low to survive!

What difficulties did the speakers mention about working in industry?
Dealing with redundancy was a recurring theme of the talks and a reality that most people face in today’s uncertain and increasingly globalised economic climate. But out of crises come opportunities, to change career direction and do something new. For Richard and Keith it was the founding of new companies, for Stuart the chance to move into different sectors, take on new challenges and learn new skills. All three highlighted how developing a broad skill set and a good professional network is crucial, as it opens doors to new jobs.

What advice was there for current researcher scientists?
Many PhDs and post-docs fear they make themselves less employable the longer they remain in academia. Yet it was evident from the lectures that this needn’t be the case. All four speakers had started down the academic route, studying for PhDs and working in post-doctoral positions before moving into industry. Both technical and soft skills directly transfer from the academic world to the commercial. Chris stressed the importance of analytical chemistry in his job, utilising the skills he gained as a surface scientist at Nottingham; whereas Stuart has instilled the research ethos and problem-solving approaches developed during his PhD into his subsequent posts.

It was clear that PhD qualifications are often necessary to reach the higher echelons of many businesses. It is becoming increasingly common for even the Chief Financial Officers in many science companies to possess PhDs appropriate to the company’s technical background. Finally, moving into industry is not always the end of an academic career- papers can still be published, conferences attended and students supervised. In fact, several of the speakers described how working in industry may enhance, rather than diminish, a scientist’s international profile.

Speakers and talks - more details

Dr Richard Weaver, Xenogesis
Richard's company, Xenogesis, is a pre-clinical contract research organisation formed as a start-up after the closure of AstraZeneca's Charnwood plant. Richard had previously worked at Charnwood as a Group Leader in its Discovery Drug Metabolism and Pharmicokinetics (DMPK) team, and his expertise and experience is the basis of Xenogesis.

Richard outlined the importance of DMPK in increasing the efficiency of drug development by sitting on top of the drug discovery programme. It explores the links between a molecule's structure and its action and metabolism in the body, thereby ruling out those candidates that will have no effect or might even be toxic. This then reduces the number of molecules needed to be synthesised and screened, saving time, money and the use of unnecessary (and unethical?) animal trials. Longer term, the number of drug candidates that enter clinical trials only to fail after years of costly investment will also fall.

Faced by the closure of Charnwood, Richard saw an exciting opportunity to exploit his knowledge in DMPK and the continuing market need that still existed in the wider pharmaceutical industry. He stressed that although setting up a company has been a journey into the unknown, he has drawn on various support mechanisms and his professional network. This has included Nottingham's SME incubator BioCity where Xenogesis is based, and the UK Trade and Investment (UKTI), who he has used to expand his client base internationally.

Dr Chris Satterley, EOn
Chris has moved from the chemistry of the very small, beginning as a surface scientist the University of Nottingham, to the chemistry of the very large at EOn's Ratcliffe-on-Soar coal-fired power station. Chris talked about the chemistry involved in a number of key processes used to clean the gases emitted after burning coal for energy generation. In particular, he described the processes now widely in operation to remove polluting sulfur and nitrogen containing gases (so-called SOx and NOx), which are responsible for acid rain and smogs. The final part of Chris's talk focused on a discussion about the future of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) and the chemical challenges that still have to be overcome. In all these processes, the chemistry seems relatively simple but its application becomes complicated due to the enormous scale of a power plant. When things go wrong, the consequences can be disastrous, as Chris demonstrated with a series of photos showing power stations that had been forced off-line.

Chris was keen to point out that chemists are vital in the energy sector. They are needed to understand the chemical reactions occurring and why they might go out of control or stop completely. In the case of CCS, chemistry is required to develop new materials that can capture the carbon dioxide more efficiently at large scales. In all cases, analytical chemistry was paramount to develop suitable methods to monitor the processes and ensure they operate successfully.

Dr Keith Foster, Syntaxin
Keith gave both a personal and scientific perspective on a career that has seen him work in academia, large pharma, government research institutions and his own spin-out company, Syntaxin Ltd.

Syntaxin's activity focuses on the use of botulinum neurotoxin as a biotherapeutic for a range of diseases and disorders. Botulinum neurotoxinacts to stop the secretion of neurotransmitters from nerve cells, and is being developed by Syntaxin to target diseases where this process has gone wrong. Such conditions include movement disorders and spasticity, endocrine and hormonal disorders and urinary incontinence.

Changes to his job circumstances and security often led to Keith making significant career-changing decisions, resulting in new opportunities. After government re-organisation threatened to close the research programme Keith was working on, he was able to persuade cautious bureaucrats to create Syntaxin as the first spin-out from a UK government department. Keith explained how the process has expanded his knowledge beyond science and into its commercial application, covering areas such as finance and intellectual property. He also pointed out moving from academic research into business had not come at a cost to his international profile or prevented him from doing cutting edge research. If anything, the opposite was true.

Dr Stuart Jordan, ProMetic BioSciences
(Many thanks to Stuart for replacing his colleague Sharon Williams who was unable to give the lecture as planned).
Stuart gave a broad overview of his diverse and varied career. Doing a year in industry during his degree made Stuart aware of the glass ceiling in the science industry for those without PhDs. Consequently, he decided to come to the University of Nottingham to work with Professor Gerry Pattenden on synthetic organic chemistry. Stuart highlighted how the humility, attention to detail and dedication that comes with a PhD has benefited him throughout his subsequent career; aptitudes that translated directly into working in industry.

After his PhD, Stuart moved to Amersham Biosciences, where he helped translate the PhD ethos into a commercial environment, creating successful training programmes for colleagues similar to those he had experienced during his time at Nottingham. Like Keith, Stuart's latter career in several SMEs has meant broadening his knowledge by taking on greater responsibilities in the commercial and business operations of each company.

In his current company, ProMetic BioSciences, Stuart has moved into a managerial role but still likes to be involved in the laboratory work. Their portfolio of affinity chromatography products for the purification of biological materials such as proteins from blood plasma is far removed from his early research. However, the common sense and skills of reasoning developed during his research career has allowed Stuart to work with customers to design products and processes matching their specific needs. Stuart was also keen to comment on how being a chemist often meant ending up with taking responsibility for a company's health and safety!

Alasdair Taylor
University of Nottingham

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