Business and science the right mix for PhD student

10 Sep 2008
University of Queensland graduate David Ireland had a Bachelor of Science and Business as well as Honours in Biochemistry, so when it came to doing his PhD he wasn't sure which way to go - business or science. In the end he thought "why not do both?". In a Queensland first, Dr Ireland, 28, of New Farm, last year completed a PhD split between the Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB) and UQ Business School (UQBS). "The reason I did it was I had an interest in science and business and I didn't want to have to choose just yet," Dr Ireland said. The innovative program designed by Dr Ireland, along with his advisors, involved both scientific research and business analysis with the joint aims of developing a new family of drugs and analysing and developing business structures and models for biotechnology companies and applying this to IMB start-up company Kalthera Pty Ltd. "Being the first of its kind, the program posed a few challenges and was initially hard to get approved but I was working with a number of passionate people in both the IMB and UQBS who really supported what I was doing," Dr Ireland said. UQBS's Dr Damian Hine was one of Dr Ireland's supporters. As Director of the Doctor of Biotechnology program - a joint appointment between UQBS and the UQ Biological and Chemical Sciences faculty - Dr Hine was keenly aware of the need to integrate business and science in biotechnology. "It is important for the sake of the biotechnology industry to progress good science beyond the laboratory and along a successful commercialisation path and if an individual possesses knowledge across these two large fields, then the opportunities for success are enhanced," Dr Hine said. "Interdisciplinarity and the way science and business complement each other is something I had been researching for a while, so the prospect of supervising a PhD which worked to harmonise the knowledge sets was exciting. "It was hard work for all of us, most particularly because David was the first cab off the rank, but now, because of the success we have achieved with David, we have increasing interest from other candidates." Dr Ireland charted the growth of 10 biotechnology companies from around the world and explored the extent to which scientific models, concepts and methods could be employed as part of the commercialisation process for biotechnology firms. The scientific side of the project looked at using unique compounds known as cyclotides, molecules that are present in some plants, to develop anti-cancer drugs, thereby helping translate academic technology into a commercially-viable product. "Essentially, my project looked at the evolution of a biotech start-up as a complete picture - not just the science and discovery side, or just the business side, but both sides simultaneously," Dr Ireland said. Dr Ireland said the biggest challenge for him while completing his PhD was that he found himself "in a void" between the two disciplines. "I wasn't recognised as a full-time business school student so I wasn't given complete access to things like travel funds and competitions and didn't have the support available to a lot of the other students. That was a bit frustrating. However, it meant that I had to apply for grants from various bodies including the Queensland Government and IMBcom, the commercialization group for the IMB, which gave me valuable skills in writing grant applications and, because I was awarded a number, looks great on my resume," he said. He said any lingering skepticism about a dual discipline PhD melted away after he started getting papers published and receiving awards: "People started recognising that what I was doing was valuable". In fact, Dr Ireland was such a prolific writer he was able to submit a thesis by publication, which was recently included on the Dean's Commendation list for outstanding PhD thesis. "I did (the thesis by publication) for my own personal satisfaction, but also to play a role in helping science and business move forward." Professor David Craik, Dr Ireland's supervisor at the IMB and a key supporter of the dual discipline design, was delighted with the outcome of the PhD. "David's ability to pull together so successfully the two sometimes cognitively dissonant disciplines is testament to his ability to understand and research complex problems," Professor Craik said. "His scientific results added considerable value to our research program investigating the utility of cyclotides in drug design, and his business analyses identified some of the important characteristics of successful biotech firms." Now Manager of Innovation and Commercial Development at UniQuest - Australia's largest and most successful university commercialisation group - Dr Ireland is again using his dual science and business skills, looking at the marketability of researchers' new discoveries. "I really enjoy it because I really like science but I never particularly liked lab work and this way I get exposed to a lot of different technology and the excitement of that without having to get my hands dirty," Dr Ireland said. He said his business acumen has helped him "immeasurably" in his current position. "I don't have to spend the first year or two trying to understand the mechanics of business as I am already familiar with it," he said. "My business knowledge and knowing how innovation occurs really made the difference, and that is essentially what UniQuest is about. Most of the people here come from a science background but they have all spent time learning those business skills so we are able to provide business expertise but also have an understanding of the technology." Dr Ireland eventually wants to veer more into the business side of things in the Venture Capital world, but he is happy to take his time. "I don't want to get there too quickly. I want to spend time in technology transfer and then work for a company and once I have more experience and knowledge I would look at venture capital." So what advice does he have for other prospective PhD students considering mixing it up a little? "Go for it." "It is more work than a normal PhD but at end of the day you come out with a much broader set of skills. Particularly in an industry like biotech, an industry where you need to have business skills, you can really benefit from coupling with the Business School."