Fuelling the academic-industry dynamic

Malcolm Skingle manages Academic Liaison at GSK with staff in Stevenage, Research Triangle Park and Philadelphia. His role involves close liaison with several groups outside the Company e.g. Government Departments, Research and Funding Councils, Small Biotechnology Companies and other science-driven organisations. He sits on many external bodies including several UK University Department advisory groups. He also chairs a number of groups including the Diamond (Synchotron) Industrial Advisory Board, the Cogent Science Industry Partnership Board driving skills for the life sciences sector and the ABPI group working on academic liaison.

Malcolm imparts some of his 35 years of experience in the management of research activities as he outlines the importance of stronger a academic-industry dynamic and shares his experiences at the interface between academia and industry.

B&M: Malcolm, you’ve been Director of Academic Liaison at GlaxoSmithKline for approx. 15 years now. Can you briefly summarise what your role entails and where you feel you add the most value in your role?

Malcolm Skingle: GSK have got more than 10,000 scientists globally. We publish some great science but we obviously need access to more science than we’ve actually got in-house. We then have to have people who think differently about science so where I add value is pulling in funders and scientists who want to work on scientific areas that help underpin our research.

B&M: How important is that academic-industry dynamic and interface for GSK right now. How high does it sit within GSKs strategic priorities?

Malcolm Skingle: It’s very important. Most companies now realise they need to work with Universities more. In the UK its particularly good that the UK Government are being so supportive of science and the HEFCE Impact agenda is actually changing the culture with academics for the better. For the very first time there are a majority of academics who are thinking about the potential commercial impact of the research they are undertaking. The Pathways to Impact agenda, with the various UK research councils is getting academics to think about their science in a more strategic way, and we see that of great value to us. I’ve always seen the value for the last 20 years in working with academia but I think through a number of successful, targeted Governmental initiatives, the academic sector has become more amenable to a far broader audience of investors and partners, and that’s great because that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 20 years.

B&M: You talk about the interactions between GSK and academia and looking to be that partner of choice but what is it that makes GSKs approach so unique? What do academics see in GSKs offering?

Malcolm Skingle: I’d like to think that GSK always does the right thing with their academic partners and a smart academic partner would look at the track record of a company like GSK and see a natural synergy, see the value in engaging with us, and see success stories that emanate with their own science. It’s something we’ve been able to build upon for many many years. But simply put, its about selecting the best ideas wherever and whenever we see them and moulding them into our own world. I’ve had companies come to us and ask me how we do things and when people want to emulate what you’re doing that’s always a good thing.

Its also about knowing when the engage with other pharma companies. Two years ago we were going to be spending some funding in Manchester University, in the area of imuno-inflammation. They had a critical mass of people, they needed more people to make it the all singing all dancing unit but I actually approached AstraZeneca before I approached Manchester to see whether they’d be up for co-funding, and they did.

We put £5m in and they put £5m in and then later, Manchester agreed to put £5m in. We didn’t leverage any funding at all and then we went out and got additional recruits, we got representatives from places like Harvard and Imperial to drive it. It’s underpinning research that we tap into and we know when we seed science like that it works as the multiplier.

B&M: What is it about that in your mind that makes for a successful early stage collaborations? Is it the synergy, the research, the people you are working with?

Malcolm Skingle: The world leading science bit is taken as a given. We don’t work with Division 2 people, so then it’s down to who actually wants to work with you to develop the science. There are ‘take the money and run academics’ and there are people who genuinely want to actually work with you to drive the science forward. That can equally be companies and academics alike. Open communication and transparency and managing Chinese walls, so people like Professors Philip Cohen, Dario Alessi and Mike Ferguson up in Dundee, these are people who know how the game works. They know there’s information they can share across the whole piece and when you think about it places like Dundee that get access to the chemical diversity of half a dozen major pharma companies through collaboration.

B&M: You mentioned the TTO interaction earlier in the interview. How important is their role in what you are doing?

Malcolm Skingle: For a decade I’ve been on the board of PraxisUnico, a training organisation for Tech Transfer Organisations and representatives. The reason I do that is because once or twice a year I will go and teach or give advice on one of their courses and it gives me the opportunity to get to 40 or 50 universities in one hit so they can be very open. I will tell them exactly why we do what we do and how we do it. As a consequence of that we get into positions where its easier for GSK to establish relationships and put agreements in place. So in short TTOs have always been important to GSK, its how we look to engage that offers us a differentiator to other Pharma companies.

B&M: Do you see that as the greatest opportunity for you and what you’re doing in GSK? It’s developing not just collaborations across disciplines, but also across multiple stakeholders?

Malcolm Skingle: Definitely, and it’s joining people
up also. In the old days Universities would always tell you they were the best at absolutely everything, which obviously can’t be true. Many of our collaborations will not only put different disciplines together but different Universities also. We’ll be open with them and get them working together as on the most part they instinctively want to do it if they don’t see the other side as competition.

But everyone gets that now. Within the EPSRC, I chair a an Advisory group once a year up in Edinburgh, and they’ve got a collaboration with Herriot Watt and Bath, photonics, physicists, A&E physicians, chemists and materials people. 10 years ago you’d have never pulled that group together with funding in the EPSRC world.

B&M: What do you see as the challenges to that type of dynamic? Is it the sheer volume of science that is coming out of these universities?

Malcolm Skingle: You can only fund so much, we are not a research council. There has to be something in it for GSK. But I think you can get to where you need to be fairly quickly if you’re honest. Most people will respect that level of bluntness because they don’t want to waste their time.

Also I participated in something at Clare College a couple of months ago, it was all about big partnerships, a number of large blue chip companies were present. The IFM, Institute for Manufacturing organised it. A couple of things that really struck me was how a lot of the big companies were saying they’re going into far fewer larger collaborations. I only agreed with that to a point. I think there’s still pockets of excellence in universities that you wouldn’t expect. And I think you don’t want to go too far down the all the eggs in one basket. You need critical mass to drive science and diversity so you shouldn’t be completely closed to certain sources.

B&M: How have you seen your role changing over the years in terms of interactions with relevant funding bodies and industry players as well?

Malcolm Skingle: I think governments now actually want a slice of the science base. So Singapore for example, there are tax credits on manufacturing presuming you spend enough on R&D. Wise move, you get a bit of a science base, we’ve got quite a big unit in Singapore like other countries, and it is a strategic relationship. I think the developing world science bases have got stronger since we’ve been doing this. The great thing about the UK is the pragmatism, most of the academics, the senior people, the funders, we’re very lucky to have The Wellcome Trust in the UK, it’s a great organisation for driving a better science base. But I work with multiple co-funders in multiple countries, eg Genome Canada, Invest in Denmark, Science Foundation Ireland, MRC in Africa. It’s truly an international game, and with all these initiatives going on, it only helps my role for the better.

B&M: Looking at the industry a littler broader, it’s very buoyant in the UK at the moment. How do you think the industry can continue to capitalise on what’s happening at the moment in terms of funding, investment, success stories? What needs to happen to continue that progress?

Malcolm Skingle: It’s a great place to do your science, but obviously the lack of risk taking culture in the UK has been detrimental. To fail is not seen as an option in the UK. Whereas in America it’s like getting your PhD, if your first company fails you just go on and do your next one. What needs to be done is we need to continue to promote entrepreneurship and entrepreneurship training and there’s a lot of good stuff going on. I bumped into Steve Caddick on the way to this interview, he does a great job at UCL in that space. The more open and honest the dialogue is the better. There are still academics who think they can take a molecule all the way into a medicine. That’s nonsense because they wouldn’t have the skill, if it was that easy we’d have already done it and been millionaires. The more you can do to link up good advisors, good networks to increase that communication the better in my opinion.

One of the good things about the consolidation of the pharmaceutical industry of late is as companies have merged the people who have left those organisations have then populated biotechs. So we’re benefitting from a diverse generation of scientists, experts, entrepreneurs who are striking out and looking to try something different, which can only be a good thing for UK science.

I also think the mentorship dynamic is important for a dynamic and vibrant sector. Some say there’s a shortage of management talent to drive companies in UK, but I see that changing now, and we are now seeing people with both the capabilities and also the personality to build an idea. You need to know your science but you also need to be able to talk to people, tell a story, build a vision and look people in the eye.

B&M: A lot of what you mention in terms of opportunity is around management, so conversely do you see management also as a challenge to realising the potential of this industry?

Malcolm Skingle: On the most part yes. There are people who are a great fit for a certain time in the life of the organisation, but once you pass that point they become a hindrance. Sometimes you’ll have the founder academics who actually love the idea of the Porsche in the car park and driving something through to utility, but actually they really want to be an academic, they just don’t want to lose control of what they’ve started. But companies as they go through an evolution need a different type of person to take them to that next stage; some people don’t realise that soon enough. I’ve known entrepreneurs who have started up companies and want to run it, then fall out with their Board, then leave to start another one. That’s good, it’s healthy. It means the company is passed onto more capable hands, capable of moving forward to a more advanced stage and is finally adding value to its employees, its market and its investors.

B&M: In terms of academic entrepreneurs looking to engage you in discussion, what is it you are looking to hear to warrant further conversation? And if you could impart one piece of advice on an entrepreneur looking to engage with a pharma company to progress their research, what one piece of advice would you give them?

Malcolm Skingle: Strong science would be the underpinning thing that I would want to hear, that’s what pricks my ears up. A good strap line that goes with it, what is unique about it, what is the competition. And a bit of personality, for someone who is going to drive it.

In terms of advice, I would say know your market, know where you fit in the competitive landscape. If you start talking to a company and you clearly don’t know what the competition is then, particularly on the scientific side of things rather than the commercial side, you’re going to lose credibility. Do your homework, know your competition, know how it fits into the organisation that you’re trying to pitch to.

This interview was taken from our August edition of Drugs & Dealers magazine. To read more great articles, like the above, from The Crick Institute, Imperial Innovations, Edinburgh BioQuarter, UCL Business, Isis Innovation, Cancer Research Technology, The Wellcome Trust, Coller IP, J&J Innovation, BBSRC, Marks & Clerk, Apposite Capital and Silicon Valley Bank Download it for free and become a Biotech and Money subscriber.

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