Know-how and the concept of competitive differentiation

Earlier today, I heard some insightful student talks at the annual Québec-Ontario Minisymposium on Synthetic and Biological Chemistry. This year, the conference was organized by Professor Russ Viire of Ryerson University in Toronto. As I was listening to the lectures, I kept thinking about an issue I wanted to write about for a long time. I just could not properly verbalize it thus far, but here is an attempt to propose a new approach to shaping the careers of students who study synthesis and synthetic methods.

I was brought up to believe that the most important thing in a synthetic method is its “broad applicability”. There is this unwritten rule in academia about assigning the highest value to reactions and processes that are “practical”. I think you would agree that it is Barry Sharpless who started it all by ensuring that his reactions could be carried out in a very straightforward fashion and with great ease. This is important, but let’s go deeper. At a research university, professors are doing science in close collaboration with graduate students and postdocs. Therefore, the emphasis on “broad applicability” must be relevant to our students. But why is this necessarily important from their perspective? What a radical question! No one ever asks it. Putting aside the much-needed and useful cross-fertilization with other academic labs, the focus on practical reactions has been a consequence of our historical reliance on the pharmaceutical industry, who used to hire our students and would pad us on our backs, encouraging us to come up with reactions their chemists could use. There are even some folks who used to tell me “Andrei, if you develop a good reaction, we will use it, so do not patent it.” Oh yeah? Thanks. It is nice to feel needed…

You know that things are very different in the pharma sector now compared to the years past. For one, they hire way less than before. The jobs are there for our students, but these are not the same types of jobs. So why is it that we owe anything to these companies? Why is it that the validation of our work must come in the form of ensuring that reactions that come out of our labs could be widely used by their scientists? Give me a good reason. In fact, there is an argument I can make that, in this day and age of alternative (and often very exciting) career paths for our students, they ought to think about competitive differentiation. This entails pursuing one’s ideas and stressing the importance of know-how that emerges from one’s efforts. In other words – why not make yourself more marketable by developing a method or technique that requires specialized knowledge others would want to have, but would be unable to get out of papers? I am particularly convinced that this is an important part of one’s education because there is a very curious contradiction when I put on my hat of Encycle Therapeutics’ founder and talk to investors. These discussions are all about the so-called competitive advantages. It is amusing that negotiations with investors are dominated by their interest in technologies that cannot be readily replicated and require complex patents. This is diametrically opposite to what we preach to our students by continuing to imply that truly practical processes ought to be the pinnacle of their work (by the way, I am sick of reading the wording “broadly applicable”, even though my own lab uses it on occasion). And when it comes to listening to lectures, I really do not care how broadly applicable a given process is. All I want to see and hear are exciting scientific questions that are being pursued. By the way, I am not discarding the importance of practical reactions. I am just trying to remind people that this is not the only game in town. Science is indeed vast. Plus, we ought to keep in mind the big irony: unless something drastic changes, the emphasis on practicality as the metric of success is dated and goes back to when academics naively thought that their mission in life was to appease their industrial colleagues. Take that old and over-cited quote by Cornforth: “the ideal process is carried out in a disused bathtub by a one-armed man who cannot read, the product being collected continuously through the drain hole in 100% purity and yield”… I am tired of hearing this “wisdom”. As the pharmaceutical industry has shifted from their traditional hiring practices, so should we – from thinking that our main purpose in life is to develop methods that could be useful to some medicinal or process chemist at a big company. In this regard, I am sure you have seen a ton of lecture slides that show some therapeutic agent and the dollar amount (typically bolded in red colour) of how much revenue the molecule has generated to date. This goes to further support my observation of misguided attempts to find relevance in academic pursuits. If I were a student, I would spend more time with my advisor and think about joint IP or go after basic science, which should always be respected by the community. And why not start your own company and do something really new and exciting?

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