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Outside the Lab Professional development

Perfect Partners?

After seven years in the medical device industry and over 12 years in academia, I believe that both sectors have their own unique strengths. But I also believe that it is only by joining forces that we will find the fastest route to the clinic.

I know from my own experience that the skills and knowledge I gained in industry (high-level project management and an understanding of what it takes to get a product onto the market) would have been difficult to acquire in academia. But on the other hand, academia has afforded me the opportunity to do “blue sky” research that would not be possible in industry.

I now head Ireland’s 50 million euro Science Foundation Ireland-funded Centre for Research in Medical Devices (CÚRAM), which works at the interface of industry and academia. Our funds are matched by investments from industry, to help solve some of the most pressing translational problems. It’s not only about developing new technologies; it’s also about adding know-how to existing technologies. For example, in a surprisingly large number of medical device products, the mechanisms of action are unclear. We can fill in the gaps, providing a high level of detail on the mechanisms and limitations, which allows the industry to develop the next generation of products.

In principle, industry–academia partnerships should be easy. Both groups are so well positioned to work with each other. Together they form an ecosystem where great science is used to create great products more efficiently. As bioengineers and scientists, that’s what we all strive towards.

But in reality, forming these partnerships is no easy task, and it is all too easy to undermine them. We shouldn’t fall into the trap of creating partnerships just for the sake of contract research. If that’s the aim, contract labs can often do a better job than we could in academia. Real collaborations demand a two-way street.

Three kinds of projects I’ve seen work best with industry–academia partnerships are blue-sky projects, critical-path projects, and projects to develop standards. Industry can be reluctant to fund a blue-sky project, even if it’s a good idea, because resources are often tied up with first-generation products. Academia can help by de-risking new projects, giving industry the confidence to invest.

If a medical device/biotech company has a critical-path project that’s almost in their pipeline, multiple questions must be answered. How does this cytokine work? If this device is implanted, what is an acceptable response? What is the mechanism of action? And that’s where academia can help provide robust and efficient data, resulting in a streamlined pipeline for the product, and ultimately helping it to reach patients quicker.

Academia can also create great assessment systems and testing tools to be implemented in industry.

Academia can also create great assessment systems and testing tools to be implemented in industry – such as in vitro 3D models – pushing development forward more efficiently. There have been some very nice tools developed in academia over the years, which have been underutilized by the industry.

There are certainly more academic–industry partnerships now than ever before, but I would like to see a smaller number of more impactful collaborations. I would rather work with five companies on well-funded, large-scale projects, than 20 companies with a small budget.

So how can we, as academics, cultivate better collaborations with industry? Contrary to what some may think, the medical device industry or pharma do not have infinitely deep pockets, and so companies invest in the projects that they believe will yield the greatest reward. But it’s also important that projects make best use of the skillsets of both teams.

No institute or company is too big to do it wrong, and if you’ve never worked in an external partnership before, the smartest and safest avenue is to start with a small collaboration and ramp it up; successful partnerships don’t happen overnight. From my experience, deeper, more meaningful collaborations only come with long-term cultivation, which starts with establishing credibility.

Are industry partnerships for everyone? No. But they do play a crucial part in cultivating a forward-thinking, efficient translational ecosystem.

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About the Author
Abhay Pandit

Abhay Pandit is the Director of SFI Centre for Research in Medical Devices (CÚRAM).

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