IPA Update: The Mysterious World of Biotech

By the IPA committee

On Thursday 30th January for the 4th Science Lives Seminar the ICaMB Postdoc Association (IPA) decided to delve into what it is really like to work in the Biotech industry, by hosting Dr Keith Foster from Syntaxin Ltd (Oxford, UK). For many of us Postdocs, the Biotech Industry is an unexplored entity…so how and why did Keith Foster make the transition from Postdoc to a Biotech company co-founder? And, what advice would he give Postdocs thinking of making the same leap?

Dr Keith Foster giving his presentation

Dr Foster’s talk started by illustrating his personal experience; he obtained a PhD in biological sciences in London then set his sights on a getting a post-doc position. He explained that he had first thought he would head to the bright lights of the USA for this but as his wife’s dentistry qualifications were not recognised over there, the couple moved to Nottingham to pursue their respective careers.  At this point Keith really wanted to pursue a long and successful academic career and said he couldn’t imagine leaving academia.

However, he soon realised that you can never have a career plan set-in-stone as within the first couple of years of his post-doc, Keith and his wife found out they were expecting their first child. He recalled this period as a wake-up call, like an alarm telling him he should get what he considered a “real job”, meaning he wanted a stable, and hopefully permanent job to support his growing family. He said he quickly realised that in a field as dynamic as science you not only have to evolve and make career moves for personal circumstances, but also, because the world of science is ever changing, we never know what to expect around the next corner!

So, from Nottingham, Keith made his big move to industry as a Senior Scientist, the company being SmithKline (before it became GSK). Much to his surprise in his new job, he found that he could still put to use his “passion for science” at the bench and really got a thrill from the drug development and translational aspects of the projects that were new to him. Early on Keith started working on the protein, Botulinum neurotoxin, which he says he  “fell in love” with and this protein remains his passion to this day with Keith recently having opened his own company based on it 20 years or so later, Syntaxin Ltd.

Like many of our PIs, being the big boss at Syntaxin Ltd means that Keith does not himself spend time at the bench, but he does insist that any Postdoc going into a company as a Senior Scientist would have to do lots of bench work, making what an academic postdoc and an industrial senior scientist do on a daily basis “very similar”. We should however expect a pay rise! Nice!

Keith Foster’s company was recently bought by a French company (IPSEN). This is where one of his biggest pieces of advice came from… always leave on good terms, and try not to make any enemies! It turns out that IPSEN actually made Keith redundant earlier on in his industrial career. However, Keith moved on, working at a handful of other companies on his way, but couldn’t believe it when he managed to shake hands with IPSEN over a multi-million dollar deal for his company all those years later! A real lesson in the importance of networking and maintaining those contacts!

Another point that Keith highlighted was that Biotech or the pharmaceutical industry may not be the holy grail that many PhD students or post-docs think it is…. he posed the question is there really more job stability there these days? In academia we have fixed two or three year contracts, but industry is also highly competitive and money is hard to come by, with some firms choosing to move away from the UK and making redundancies.

To wrap this seminar up, like all our Science Lives Seminar speakers, we asked him to mention how he managed to handle a personal life and successful research career in parallel. Being a father of 4, and now a grandfather of 5, he obviously didn’t spend all of his time working. He did say however “my wife laughed when she read this question”. They obviously would not have both given the same answer!

After the seminar there was the usual informal session for post-docs to ask questions over a glass of wine or a beer, and after the IPA committee enjoyed a friendly and filling meal with Keith at the Broad Chare.

The IPA is in the process of organising our next social event, updates will follow by email and on the website. Look out!  If you would like to become involved with the IPA and help organise future events, please get in touch!

IPA Committee

IPA is run by Postdocs, for Postdocs. Get involved!

IPA page on the ICAMB website: http://www.ncl.ac.uk/camb/research/postdoc/association/

IPA Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/462376430446559

Institute for Cellular and Molecular Biosciences: http://www.ncl.ac.uk/camb/

2 thoughts on “IPA Update: The Mysterious World of Biotech

  1. I have to agree with many of the points raised here. I have now been in Industry for nearly a decade, after working in academia and government after my PhD. It is great to set out with the goal of becoming an academic scientist, but there are many other opportunities that come along if you look around. Following them can allow one to stay in science, doing great research, still publishing good work, but contributing to science in a different way.

    It is definitely also important, having said that, to echo the warnings above. There is very little truth to the idea that industry is a ‘stable’, ‘job for life’ sort of environment. There are few jobs like that left anywhere in the world and all scientists will need to be mobile and adaptable in the future. As scientists, we have 2 main choices: either stay in the same place and take the jobs we can get/keep, or be willing to be mobile to follow our careers. Few people are so famous and well connected early in their careers that they can choose both their job AND their location. Not easy to accept, but a fact.

    The point on work/life balance is another pertinent one. It is very important to be happy, fulfilled and not too stressed, but things WILL get tougher after your PhD! In competitive environments such as the academic funding system, or industry research, it is rare that you can pull it off in 35hrs a week, at a relaxed pace. It took me a long time to realise that getting to where we want in our careers takes sacrifice, hard work and involves a couple of important factors: One can either be smarter, more hard-working, or both. Most leaders I have observed in all fields are both smart AND hard-working. They have to be, as there is always someone round the corner who is just as smart as you, but willing to put in more effort…..

  2. Thanks for your insights, Jonny! It’s always good to hear different voices and experiences.

    I think most will agree with your final comments: life as a scientist is all about constant learning and working hard. It never stops or eases off – but that’s one of the thrills, I would say! You are constantly going for more, wanting to know more, understand things better and contribute more. It does have an impact on the all important work/life balance and it’s up to each one of us to find out what works for you.

    What do others think? It would be great to hear more from all career stage, from PhD students to postdocs, young PIs and established Senior PIs. Share your thoughts!

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