Spin-off company visit

‘Research at a spin-off company is not that different from academic research!’

Ever thought about a career at a spin-off company? On 1 June 2010 PCDI and Amsterdam Biomed Cluster co-organised a visit of two spin-off companies, AIMM Therapeutics and Arthrogen, to explore this career path. How do spin-off companies relate to academia? What are the similarities and differences between spin-off and academia? What challenges can a scientist expect? And what about job security?

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‘Research at a spin-off company is not that different from academic research!’


What career suits me? What possibilities do I have as a PhD in Life Sciences? Two questions frequently asked PhD students and postdocs. The Postdoc Career Development Initiative (PCDI) organizes career events for these early career scientists, supporting them to take well-informed decisions on their future.

Ever thought about a career at a spin-off company? On 1 June 2010 PCDI and Amsterdam Biomed Cluster co-organised a visit of two spin-off companies, AIMM Therapeutics and Arthrogen, to explore this career path. How do spin-off companies relate to academia? What are the similarities and differences between spin-off and academia? What challenges can a scientist expect? And what about job security?

When it comes to the research, a spin-off company is not that different from academia. Technicians supporting the researchers, same techniques, similar facilities, sometimes even shared with academia. When it comes to the focus, there is a clear difference. Whereas in academia research is predominantly driven by curiosity, companies do research to develop products for a certain purpose, it has to produce something exploitable in order to generate money. Of course this can be a new compound for therapy, but we learned that it can be much more: newly developed research tools (including animal models), medical devices, software, assays or even specific expertise are potentially exploitable products.

Working at a spin-off company does not necessarily mean the end of your academic career. Scientists at spin-off companies do publish! Both AIMM Therapeutics and Arthrogen display their publication records on their website and publications even include Nature Medicine! In order to make money, the intellectual property (IP) of new products has to be protected to prevent others from exploiting your ideas without your permission. Consequently researchers are not allowed to disseminate the results in the first 18 months prior to the moment the patent is filed. Because of this and the company’s main focus on business, it may be challenging to keep up your publication list. Joris Heus, manager of the AMC Technology Transfer Office: 'Therefore the longer you spend elsewhere, the more difficult it can get to return to academic research.'

But the spin-off company has its specific rewards and challenges. As there is  an existing market for your product, you can be sure that what you do is directly relevant/applicable and that your inventions are contributing to innovation. Spin-off companies are relatively small, therefore scientists also face challenges other than the scientific ones. Mark Lambermon (Arthrogen) explained that as a young scientist he was given the responsibility to set up an entire lab from scratch. He also had to deal with health and safety issues and GMP regulations. Great challenges but resulting in valuable experiences and newly acquired knowledge. This personal development will surely make Mark attractive for other companies, should he want to change jobs in future.

It is not uncommon that spin-off companies are acquired by big companies. As regard to job security, what does this imply? Willem van Oort, CEO at AIMM Therapeutics explained how the spin-off companies take care of their employees. ‘We aim to give our people a fixed contract as soon as possible.’ Should the spin-off company be acquired by a multinational, their positions are secured. If the multinational wishes to move the company abroad, then it has to take care of the move for the employees and match the conditions of employment. If the employee is unable to move along, then the multinational is legally obliged to compensate financially.

New insights on another career path for PhDs in the Life Sciences. The focus is different, but the research setting is quite similar. Something to further explore for your future?

 

The Life Sciences Talent Café was co-organised by PCDI and the Amsterdam BioMed Cluster