R&D: Risk and delivery in different cultures

The worlds of academia and business view each other with jaundiced eyes at times, but both add value to the research process

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As a faculty member, I’m frequently asked by business people: “Why doesn’t Purdue focus on making X or Y work?”—where X and Y would take a cross-disciplinary team. Just as often, former students working in industry tell me: “We just can’t try new things here anymore; doing so is not rewarded and is viewed as a distraction.” Long-term academic colleagues observe that companies have backed away from trying new things in favor of a deliberate and controllable process. After all, scientist head counts are much lower today than before.
The business view of academia
Many managers in business have difficulty with the idea that disorganization has virtues. Universities are tent cities of faculty- and student-driven research units that are independent and not managed, or even led, at a higher level. The strategic mission is education, and research is a tool to do that. Doing is the one route to learning that lasts. By having many choices independently decided, and funded by grants, imagination is put to work. Chances are taken and mistakes are generally of little consequence. Doing something new matters at least as much as doing something important. That’s OK. The importance may be realized later.
One can try without threat of layoffs, mergers or abandonment. Delivering practical solutions in the form of products and services is not our job. Personnel purposely turn over very fast. We are not good at executing on those projects where adhering to a regulation or protocol is required.
For example, it is hard in academia to develop rigorously validated methods, whether analytical or clinical validation. Consistency doesn’t fit well with continuous invention. Universities have endeavored to add consistency with “core centers” or, on a grander scale, “institutes” with staff not classified as faculty. They do struggle with funding and maintaining their talent. There have been a few well-endowed exceptions affiliated with (but separate from) the academy. Summarizing: Research in academia is bottom-up.
The academic view of business
Many in academia disparage business for not pursuing the most novel basic science and not quickly adopting new tools. They see us as obsessed with doing the same thing over and over and slow to try new ideas. This was less true in the 1960s and 1970s than it is today, but globalization and greater regulatory control has driven out much of R. We’ve been de-risked, so to speak. The once-affordable skunk-works, hidden from accountants, were unsustainable for decades, but now seem to have reappeared in the form of space-launch vehicles and self-driving cars. These are D, not R. When performance is measured every 90 days, it is hard to accept the risk of basic science. In business we are much better at delivering on development by nurturing it and managing it. Commercial firms are organized to the same extent as the academy is disorganized. Specialized functions are brought together with coordinated project teams that “own” the project.
Decades ago, there was greater tolerance of central corporate R&D as a cost center. Today we outsource, license in or buy something. Boutique companies with no sales are where much of the R of old has gone. The expectation for such firms are losses every 90 days, and that is an expectation easily met before revenue starts.
Summarizing: Development in business is top-down.
Opportunities for synergy
Can we bring the two cultures together to cross the valley of death between fundamental R and the delivery of the promise we call D? Every large pharma and university I know tries to figure this out. Many initiatives are in place, some for over a decade. One widely embraced approach is to encourage university faculty and students to start companies. Another is to dangle institutional funds in front of faculty with orthogonal skills who then self-assemble to take on a larger challenge. This motivation works better now that the probability of single-investigator research grants has dropped precipitously.
That same theme has been on the minds of federal grant administrators for some time. There are more opportunities for larger projects with better-defined deliverables. While some academics complain about the resulting pressure on individual investigator grants, the future is moving on from that. We must accept project management formalities. We must have professors breaking out of their silos defined by departments and deans and make good things happen for society. DARPA, NSF, NIH, DOE, et al. are all doing it. Let’s not confuse this with top-down management in the business sense. Faculty still must self-assemble and decide on their own to go for larger impact. Directing faculty remains pushing wet spaghetti.
The impressions stated above are widely shared. The tyranny of averages applies here just as it does with clinical trials. The best of us on both the academic and commercial side defy the averages and get something important done. Organizational and funding experiments are underway to facilitate this. Yes. They can easily get bogged down. University presidents and company CEOs make pronouncements, but what matters happens in the labs far below.
My professor friends often are reluctant to redirect their research. My biopharma friends rarely get relief from development projects to engage with academia.
Interactions take time, and little of that is available on either side. It’s just hard to organize a collective will in disorganizations and to allow for mavericks in managed organizations. It happens. When it does, it’s a beautiful thing. A new country grew from that very idea beginning in 1776. It’s still evolving, still chaotic and still frustrating for all who have no taste for ambiguity.

Peter T. Kissinger (who can be reached at kissinger@ddn-news.com) is professor of chemistry at Purdue University, chairman emeritus of BASi and a director of Chembio Diagnostics, Phlebotics and Prosolia.

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