Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The importance of teamwork

One of the major reasons for the existence of KGI is to span the gap between the academic and corporate views of life science research. We all tend to focus on the nature of the output, i.e. basic vs. applied science. However, as our students discover during their yearlong projects with companies, the way work gets done is also very different.

One area of potential culture clash is the real world importance of teamwork, as highlighted by an article earlier this month in Nature Bioentrepreneur. A few excerpts:
From academic solos to industrial symphonies
Gwen Acton, Alicia Gómez-Yafal & Emily Walsh
Published online: 17 May 2012
Academic researchers often need to stand out to advance, but the corporate world calls for team players. Moving from one world to the other can be a culture shock.
Individual project ownership is often encouraged and rewarded in academia, yet this approach in industry downplays the contributions of the team and inhibits key communication required for the success of highly multidisciplinary drug development projects. ... Over the years, we have seen many scientists undermine their careers by trying to do too much on their own.
Individual project ownership, and the recognition that follows, is the pillar on which careers are made or lost in the academic arena. ... Competition is indeed the name of the game in academia, and it is arguably not a bad thing. In industry, on the other hand, rapid, nonlinear career evolution is business as usual. Competition is reserved for external parties and has no place within your team. Development of the product, which will bring benefit to the patient, is central. Individual contributions routinely take a peripheral place, and any meritocracy is team based, because drug discovery projects are among the most multidisciplinary projects of all scientific endeavors.

Going solo in this atmosphere is at best a kamikaze approach and definitely career limiting, in our experience. ... Scientists who are not team players are often passed over for roles in startup biopharmaceutical companies. This is because industrial R&D is as much a team- and people-oriented effort as one that relies on an individual with particular expertise. As one venture capitalist (VC) puts it, when selecting startup management, “choose attitude over aptitude”. These views are likely shocking for scientists in academia, but they are widely held in industry.
I am going to recommend this reading for our entering students, particularly those in our PPM program (the world’s first post-PhD master’s program) who have chosen to leave the world of academic science in hopes of finding a corporate position. A graduate professional education is as much about developing norms and expectations as it is imparting specific technical or business knowledge.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Capstone professional education

Today is the biggest day of the year here at KGI, as 88 graduate students present the results of their year-long Team Masters Project. The TMP is the capstone of the KGI experience, allowing teams of 4-5 students to work to meet the needs of a real company.

Realism is the watchword of the TMP program (and KGI more generally). The students work as consultants (with the faculty advisor as the senior partner) to identify and address the needs articulated by their industry liaison. This is not about getting a grade: this is about delivering results that satisfy the promises the team made to their sponsor. Unlike (most) projects in the real world, the deadline is completely immovable, as our students are all planning on graduating and leaving KGI next week.

There are analogous programs in some professional schools, such as the business school context where I worked for 11 years. However, such efforts are usually a single semester and a single course (KGI students treat their TMP as a double class).

This is my second TMP Day, but my first as a KGI faculty member. It’s also a record year for the TMP program, with 19 projects and (for the first time) being presented in parallel sessions. Of the 19 projects, 11 are from returning sponsors — eight of these sponsoring in consecutive years.

I watched three projects during the lead off segment. All three played to KGI strengths: two related to rare diseases and a third to genomic medicine.

For Pfizer, the team compared the regulatory approval processes for orphan and non-orphan drugs that were approved over a ten year period. After examining regulatory disclosures for 95 drugs to treat conditions of hematology, pulmonology, endocrinology, neurology, they found that the orphan drug trials had fewer trials and number of trial participants — but the time required for clinical trial and regulatory approval were similar. The study is expected to be published in the Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics Journal.

For Sigma-Tau, the student team examined the direct, indirect and intangible costs for a rare childhood disease, totaling over the direct costs were over $5 billion. After adding up medical and other quantifiable costs, they used social media to contact parents of patients to better understand the impact of the disease on these children and their families.

The project for Express Scripts/Medco considered how (or whether) this pharmacy benefits manager should leverage the opportunities to create new business around whole genome sequencing. Considering both the feasibility and attractiveness of these opportunities, they evaluated three ways of generating revenue from customers — in oncology, pharmacogenomics and preventative care — as well as business models based on selling the data for other purposes (such as pharma research).

This year I’ve been advisor for two projects from beginning to end (the first faculty member to do that).
Presentation by Clear Springs project team
The first team to present analyzed the feasibility of building an open pond algae farm for the 18,000 acres of Florida land owned by Clear Springs Land Company. The biofuels industry is a potentially huge market, but this requires hundreds of millions of investment in unproven technology to compete with commodity oil prices. After reviewing the literature, talking to experts, working with a specific technology provider and attending an algae conference, my team concluded that it would be possible to get a positive NPV (over 10 years) by selling biodiesel and aquafeed from the algae cultivation.

This afternoon will bring my second team, who have compared R&D processes in four Fortune 500 companies and a large government lab. From 73 interviews, they created a six-step model of the innovation journey: opportunity recognition, idea generation, idea crystallization, consensus building, management approval and implementation. This project was a rare one in that it was sponsored by Eli Lilly, but the full findings are being shared with participating companies and members of the Industrial Research Institute. (They also expect to publish a summary in Research-Technology Management, the IRI journal).

Other sponsors this year included Abbott Medical Optics, Amylin, BioMarin, City of Hope, Gilead, Life Technologies, Monsanto and Tecan.

Once the final reports are submitted next week, the students are done. But for the sponsors, TMP director and (soon) faculty advisors, the process for next year is just beginning again.