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This is the first in a series of articles exploring topics that will be addressed at the HPLC 2020 conference in San Diego, from June 20 to 25.
This is the first in a series of articles exploring hot topics in high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC). Although originally planned as a preview of the HPLC 2020 conference, which has been postponed to June 2020, the series provides insights into important developments in the technique.
Addressing the ever-changing landscape of needs and opportunities in industrial research can be a daunting challenge. Working with academics can provide a rapid and cost-effective solution if obstacles to collaboration can be overcome.
High performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) and related separation technologies have long been the most widely used analytical tools in industrial research and development, making it somewhat surprising that U.S. government funding of academic research in this field has been in decline for years. A revival of funding support for separation science is now being considered (1), and thankfully, a number of outstanding academic researchers still remain to train students and to lead essential innovation efforts.
Separation scientists in industry have no shortage of cutting-edge problems, needs, and opportunities, but the combination of faster project timelines, workforce reductions, and incoming new employees with decreased training in separation science makes progress challenging. Emerging problems in industrial separation science result from changes in other fields of science, from macroeconomic factors affecting corporate strategies, and from company- or department-level changes in business approaches. In addition, ongoing innovations in separation science offer opportunities for streamlining or disrupting existing industrial workflows and business practices. To address these problems or investigate these opportunities, industrial separation scientists must innovate-while still carrying out normal work functions with a constantly shrinking labor pool.
Adoption of automation, robotics, artificial intelligence, and other technologies that improve the overall speed and productivity of separation tasks can be critically important in freeing workers for further innovation (2). In recent years, external innovation has become increasingly important in industrial research, allowing for more cost-effective problem solving (3,4). Consultants, contract research organizations, and external instruction courses can familiarize companies with areas that are new to them, but known to others.
Industry–Academia Research Collaborations
Research collaborations with academia can be important for industries wishing to gain a sense of an existing field or to explore new technologies with the potential to disrupt current operations. Close collaboration with students during these projects has the additional benefit of helping to identify potential new employees. Industry–academia collaborative research projects benefit faculty and students as well as industry participants. A focus on problems that are relevant to industry can help to educate and direct academic innovation efforts in a productive way while familiarizing students with industry work culture, team dynamics, and other factors that may help to inform their decisions about pursuing a career in industry. Stronger ties between faculty and industry can lead to future collaborations and the placement of graduating students. Finally, both parties can benefit from making available to the other challenging samples for analysis or cutting-edge separation technologies that are not yet widely available or that are still under development.
Despite these advantages, collaborations between industry and academia can be challenging. In the past, a simple handshake agreement to engage in a collaboration was the norm, but those days are long gone. Both parties need to be protected, thus a legal agreement underlying the collaboration is required, and negotiating and finalizing such agreements can take considerable time-typically 6 to 9 months, but often more than a year. Clearly, the responsiveness to emerging industry problems and opportunities is severely blunted by such delays, where the rapid pace of change means that waiting a year or more just to begin a research project aimed at developing a solution is not really a viable option.
Cost can be another issue. Although funding a student project at a university is a good bargain relative to the cost of carrying out such research within a company, costs are rising and funded academic collaborations almost always require payment of indirect costs (overhead) relating to maintaining university facilities and administration.
Finding the right research group to collaborate with can also be challenging, especially when an industry group is interested in moving into an unfamiliar area of science.
The Center for Bioanalytic Metrology (CBM), a National Science Foundation’s Industry-University Cooperative Research Program
The National Science Foundation Industry–University Cooperative Research Program (NSF IUCRC) provides an important mechanism for focusing the innovation potential of academia on the emerging needs and opportunities of industry (5). The program has been in existence for nearly 50 years and has played an important role in driving innovation across a number of important industries.
We recently launched the Center for Bioanalytic Metrology (CBM), an NSF IUCRC involving Notre Dame, Purdue, and Indiana University that is focused on addressing the measurement science problems of industry (6). Current industry members include Eli Lilly, Corteva Agriscience, Abbvie, Exxon Mobil, Pfizer, Agilent, Merck, Sartorius, Bristol Myers Squibb, Genentech, and the Indiana Biosciences Research Institute (IBRI). Industry members indicate detailed technology gaps and needs, and this list is shared with the university faculty. Research proposals that address these needs are submitted by the faculty, with industry members voting to allocate their $50,000 membership fees to the project or projects of their choosing. All membership fees are used for project funding, and no indirect costs are charged by the universities for CBM projects. In addition, joint funding of projects between several members is encouraged, providing additional value by leveraging of membership funds. Finally, new projects are launched under the terms of a pre-existing membership agreement signed by all participants, reducing bureaucratic delays for starting new projects to an absolute minimum.
Once a project is launched, periodic group meetings involving faculty, students, and industry participants are used to craft an experimental plan and track progress. Ideally, students carrying out the research travel to present results at industry sites and industry members visit university laboratories to check on progress, evaluate new tools, and network with students and faculty. Completed projects are published, often with joint university–industry authorship. Although the center is still at an early stage of development, it is our expectation that this new model for addressing the measurement science needs of industry will lead to significant innovations, education of students and faculty, improved relationships between industry and university members and job placement opportunities for graduating students.
In closing, it is important to note that collaborations with industry account for only a fraction of all academic research, and that it is essential that academic researchers continue to have the freedom to carry out investigations with little immediate practical benefit for industry. However, when the aim of the research is to develop tools and technologies that will directly affect the way that industrial research is carried out, collaboration between academic and industry scientists can provide a fruitful avenue for innovation that can be mutually beneficial.
Christopher J. Welch retired in 2017 from a career in the pharmaceutical industry, where he carried out research in separation science, stereochemistry, and process research and led efforts to identify, develop, and evaluate new enabling technologies for pharmaceutical research. He now serves as the Executive Director of the Indiana Consortium for Analytical Science & Engineering, based in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA, a joint venture between Purdue University, Indiana University, and The University of Notre Dame. Direct correspondence to Chris.Welch@ICASE.center