Academia vs Start-up: as a research scientist, what would you choose?

A unique insight into the world of a start-up: SIU recently interviewed Alizé Pennec, a research scientist from Oxford Biotrans about her story of transitioning from academia to industry and the journey of this young spin-out company.

A unique insight into the world of a start-up: SIU recently interviewed Alizé Pennec, a research scientist from Oxford Biotrans about her story of transitioning from academia to industry and the journey of this young spin-out company.

Author: Holly Reeve Edited by: Luiz Guidi

There are many articles about academic scientists who have founded companies, who are entrepreneurs, who go on to run companies and who, ultimately, stop working in the lab to focus on the business aspects of start-ups. Whilst I find that hugely inspiring, I do wonder: what about people who love being research scientists? Those who want to stay working in the research environment, investigating new ideas, making improvements to science or technology because they are immersed in the fundamental aspects? Successful start-ups must be full of these scientists - bridging the science from an academic lab to commercial success.

I spoke to Alizé Pennec about her experience of moving from the academic lab of Prof. Luet Wong (University of Oxford), where she carried out a 1 year BBSRC funded postdoc position, to Oxford Biotrans, the company that span out of the university based on the research led by Prof. Wong. Oxford Biotrans develops and commercialises enzymatic process technologies that yield high-value chemical compounds.

Oxford Biotrans span out of Oxford in 2013 as a virtual company* with 1 employee. Over the course of 2 years, the company raised £2.5m and began hiring additional staff and investing in research laboratories.  Alizé did not expect to move to the start-up when she joined Prof. Wong’s research group and this made me to wonder:

-   Why did she move? Did she have concerns about the new working environment? If so, were they founded?

As you might expect, Alizé worried about the possible lack of scientific freedom, the need to meet objectives and about transitioning into an entirely new environment. But she was also excited by the thought of seeing her research move further than the lab whilst continuing to use the skills she had developed during her PhD and postdoc. Above all, she was curious

I was surprised how many times Alizé used the word learning during my interview with her. She conjured up an image of a start-up being uniquely positioned, equally attracting to academics, graduates and people who had already worked in industry. She told me how much she has learnt from people’s different working practices, different thought processes, and different experiences. It’s easy to forget how much impact these factors have on our scientific learning, understanding and lab practices.

Oxford Biotrans holds regular meetings with its employees so researchers are involved with the company's R&D directions. Everyone can present ideas and work together to solve problems and because of this, they can move at a faster pace. Yes, there are objectives, Gantt charts**, schedules, and reports, but these provide structure to the environment and an ability to explore new ideas faster - something missing from some academic groups! Overall, Alizé says she now has more freedom to try out new ideas and new techniques.

-   What does the future hold for Alizé and for Oxford Biotrans?

I wanted to know how Alizé felt about her career change. In a university environment, the ‘career path’ can seem regimented, daunting, with a huge reliance on writing research proposals and securing funding. Is this still her future? Or does working in a start-up provide an alternative route?

 

Oxford Biotrans: Using enzymes to modify naturally occurring compounds such as producing natural citrus flavours to be used in a range of different products.

Oxford Biotrans: Using enzymes to modify naturally occurring compounds such as producing natural citrus flavours to be used in a range of different products.

Alizé talks about moving to a more managerial role, with a team of research scientists, and having responsibility for development of a discrete package of work. The company has a library of highly selective enzymes (biological catalysts) that are able to carry out reactions with near perfect precision. They are using these enzymes to make flavour and fragrance molecules; their first process is the conversion of Valencene (found in oranges) to Nookatone (the flavour and fragrance of grapefruits). Alizé’s is a chemist/biochemist and her team is responsible for the research and development required to generate new or better enzymes for a desirable chemical step. Therefore her research helps define the next products for the company. She loves the work and being in the lab, but draws parallels to becoming more senior in an academic research group – as you become more senior, you spend less time in the lab itself and can spend more time reading, solving problems the team are facing and learning about new techniques which may make the research more efficient and productive. To me, this sounds like becoming an academic group leader, but without as many of the additional jobs one is required to do in an academic setting. For sure, Alizé’s quick rise to a more managerial position could be in part due to her joining the company in its early stages, but it’s also because of her impressive track record in this area of science. Has she, in fact, ‘risen up the ranks’ much quicker than she might have in academia?

Of course, there is always another side: young companies can struggle, and many don’t survive the so called ‘valley of death’, especially science-based companies where start-up costs are high due to the need for highly-skilled staff, laboratories and equipment. Oxford Biotrans minimised some of these risks by starting as a virtual company and using contract manufacturers to establish markets for their initial product. But does Alizé feel pressure or responsibility for the company’s success? To some extent, the answer is “yes”. Alizé knows that not succeeding in her research goals is likely to have a significant impact on the company’s future directions. However, at its core, the company is a platform technology, applicable to many markets, and this means that both Alizé’s research directions and the company’s revenue streams are plentiful for the future.

All information about Oxford Biotrans can be found on their website: http://oxfordbiotrans.com/

 

*Virtual company: An organization that uses computer and telecommunications technologies to extend its capabilities by working routinely with employees or contractors located throughout the country or the world. Using e-mail, faxes, instant messaging, data and videoconferencing, it implies a high degree of telecommuting as well as using remote facilities (source: http://www.pcmag.com/encyclopedia/term/53904/virtual-company)

**Gantt chart: A Gantt chart, commonly used in project management, is one of the most popular and useful ways of showing activities (tasks or events) displayed against time (source: http://www.gantt.com/).