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11.05
2023

Do we still need to bridge the gap between academia and industry?

Despite years of study, training and hands-on experience, life sciences students and researchers can often find the transition to a career path outside academia difficult. We spoke to representatives from Skills for Scientists, HUB Entrepreneurship and Innovation at UNIL (University of Lausanne), SV Industry and the BioScience Network Lausanne (BSNL) to get expert insights into the issues surrounding the transition from academia to industry or entrepreneurship.

Why do students and researchers want to leave academia?

We asked Slavica Masina, Co-Founder of Skills for Scientists, why academics want to transition to alternative careers: ‘Over the past two and a half years I’ve done over 200 one-to-one consultations and, based on those conversations, I’ve found that 60–70% of early careers researchers want to leave academia.’

Slavica explains they have different motivations. People may be concerned about their future employability or by the precariousness of short-term academic contracts, or they may wish to have a more direct impact on saving people’s lives, tackling environmental issues or advancing cutting-edge fields like AI. She also highlights issues with the work–life balance in academic institutions: ‘Some people feel there are no boundaries between their lab life and their personal life. If they don’t work in the evenings or on the weekends, they say they’re not considered to be serious researchers.’ According to a study by EY, this trend can be seen across a whole generation: Swiss millennials are prioritising a positive working atmosphere and good work–life balance above salary when looking for a job.

Meanwhile, Suna In, President of BSNL, says the slow speed of progress in academia can be frustrating to students: ‘Some want to switch to industry because of the pace of work, which is usually faster. With innovation and competition at the heart of industrial research, the different dynamic can be appealing.’

Suna also thinks students find the opportunities offered by industry enticing: ‘There’s more potential for faster promotion and easier transitions between different positions. Researchers who are fed up with pipettes and centrifuges can move to the office to become a Quality Control or Compliance Manager. For the adventurous, the lengthy academic track is not as sexy as launching their own business.’

What support is out there?

Angelica Reitelli, President of SV industry, explains why support is necessary: ‘When life sciences students finish their studies, they might not know what industry can offer them – they may be confused by the structure of the industry. SV Industry invites speakers, usually EPFL [the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne] alumni, to explain to students how they have transitioned from academia to industry. We also organise conferences on specific topics and industry visits, so students can see what their daily life might look like if they pursue a particular career.’

Slavica from Skills for Scientists clarifies why the options can be puzzling: ‘Most researchers are drawn to R&D, perhaps a start-up where they’re back working on the bench, but more and more people are interested in other paths, like entrepreneurship, regulatory affairs, quality control, patent offices, medical science liaison, marketing and science communication, public health, policymaking or education.’ With so many possibilities, Skills for Scientists offers guidance in the form of one-to-one personal consultations, career roundtables with UNIL alumni, training workshops and educational courses.

BSNL organises networking events and seminars where academics can meet and interact with industry professionals, learn about job openings and gain insights into industry trends and developments. One such event is Life Science Career Day (on 16th May at the Swiss Tech Convention Centre this year), which provides extensive networking opportunities and career guidance for students and young scientists to help them explore possible future career paths and access their first job outside academia. Suna explains why such opportunities are important: ‘Attendees can broaden their career visibility by listening to talks and visiting booths. On top of that, networking sessions with speakers, recruiters, potential employers, guests and alumni from various fields offer the chance to gain in-depth knowledge about specific and diverse career options.’

When life sciences students finish their studies, they might not know what industry can offer them

Angelica Reitelli, President of SV industry

What about entrepreneurship?

Slavica sees an increasing need for support in this area: ‘More and more scientists are interested in becoming entrepreneurs, but they need help to translate their research into a commercial project.’ In response, Skills for Scientists offers courses on intellectual property, project management and leadership skills. It also collaborates with UNIL’s HUB Entrepreneurship and Innovation, for example on workshops like ‘From Benchmark to Business Smart’.

As Anne Headon, Director of the HUB, explains, the HUB’s mission is to foster entrepreneurial spirit within the seven faculties of UNIL: ‘Our vision is that entrepreneurship should be at the service of sustainability. But the HUB isn’t only about supporting sustainable start-ups to launch; we aim to give people tools, mindsets and skill sets that are going to be useful, whether they become entrepreneurs or not.’

The strategy of the HUB is based on three pillars: inspire, educate and activate. Anne clarifies: ‘We inspire by bringing entrepreneurs in front of our students and our researchers, so they can understand their stories, their motivations and the joys and struggles of their entrepreneurial journey. Although we’re not part of a faculty, we educate by supporting interdisciplinary courses on social innovation and impact entrepreneurship that faculties can integrate into their curricula. But our biggest focus is helping people who want to solve a social or environmental problem to activate their ideas.’ That’s why the HUB set up the UCreate programmes which encourage anybody from the UNIL community to explore their ideas and support some of them to turn these into a reality. They work closely with researchers who want to transform their research into a commercial opportunity but, even more importantly, wish to help create a more sustainable world.

What can individuals do for themselves?

Slavica identifies communication skills as a key area to work on: ‘Scientists need to be able to explain a concept to a non-expert audience – perhaps the marketing team, an investor or a business developer.’ Practice makes perfect: networking events are a great opportunity to talk about your work and connect with potential employers. But Slavica says that some people have the wrong approach to networking: ‘It’s not just about meeting people; it’s about maintaining the relationships. You cannot overestimate how important it is to develop significant, trusting relationships with others.’ This was the case for former Skills for Scientists alumni Dmitry Kopelyanskiy, who as a PhD candidate volunteered to organise several events, through which he got to know Samir Ounzain, future CEO and Co-Founder of Biopôle member HAYA Therapeutics – and Dmitry’s current employer.

The HUB’s UCreate programmes gives participants the opportunity to interact in a growing network. Anne elaborates: ‘We’re reaching a critical mass. Almost 300 students and researchers have gone through our programmes since we started in 2020. We also have some seasoned UNIL entrepreneurs, coaches, panellists and jury members who support us. A community with common values around impact entrepreneurship is forming. The HUB is fostering it but it will exist without us at some point.’

Suna from BSNL feels that scientists need to take the initiative: ‘Although academia does emphasise soft skills and networking, their importance tends to be underestimated: training and supervision mostly focus on intensifying academic knowledge. If individuals could explore industry opportunities in advance – through networking events, mentoring programmes, career coaching, internships or job shadowing programmes – the career transition would be smoother and less demanding.’

Entrepreneurs have the power of inspiration

Anne Headon, Director of the UNIL’s HUB Entrepreneurship and Innovation

Is there anything that companies – particularly Biopôle members – can do to help?

Angelica from SV Industry feels that the diversity of Biopôle’s community is inherently useful: ‘The multiple industries and start-ups based at Biopôle are an infinite source of inspiration for EPFL students. And when Biopôle members also make themselves available to students to help them understand their daily work, it’s extremely valuable.’

Slavica has plenty of suggestions for how Biopôle members could help: ‘Companies could reach out to Skills for Scientists when they have junior positions available, including internships. They could have an open-door policy, allow visits or be open to doing informational interviews with researchers.’ She also explains that the wording of job announcements makes a difference: ‘They could be more flexible. If a position requires five years’ experience, the advert could specify that PhD and doctoral experience counts towards that.’

BSNL explains that the benefits aren’t only for job seekers: ‘Our events are valuable opportunities for companies and entrepreneurs to showcase their research, products or services, network with potential customers, colleagues or partners and get feedback on their ideas. Our seminars and workshops allow them to demonstrate their expertise and leadership in their field. We also organise events, such as the Life Science Career Day, which can provide companies and entrepreneurs with increased visibility among the local talent.’

The HUB encourages entrepreneurs, especially UNIL alumni, to use their experience to benefit others who wish to follow in their footsteps: ‘They have the power of inspiration,’ Anne explains. ‘There is huge value just in sharing their journey. For those who’d like to get more involved, they can be coaches or panellists. If someone wants to test the feasibility of their ideas, entrepreneurs know the right questions to ask: Have you thought about this? Have you contacted X, Y and Z?’ For example, Semira Gonseth Nusslé, Co-founder and CEO of Biopôle member Genknowme and alumna of UNIL’s Faculty of Biology and Medicine, coaches aspiring entrepreneurs on the UCreate programmes.

There’s no doubt that many academics want to explore a career outside academia. The local ecosystem in Vaud is conscious of the persistent gap between academia and industry and offers many opportunities to help bridge it. Biopôle’s own community is an excellent starting point to explore the diversity of life sciences, but a proactive approach can be beneficial for students to make the switch successfully. Ultimately, initiatives like the ones explored above are essential to make sure talent finds its way from one side to the other.

Slavica Masina & Anne Headon
Co-Founder of Skills for Scientists and Director of Hub Entrepreneurship and Innovation (respectively)
The article also includes contributions from Suna In, president of BSNL, and Angelica Reitelli, president of SV Industry.
Skills for Scientists
Skills for Scientists was created in 2018 to offer professional development opportunities to researchers at different career stages, mainly in the life sciences. Its courses are part of the UNIL programme for doctoral education and are free for master’s students, PhD students, postdocs and senior researchers from the Faculty of Biology and Medicine.
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HUB Entrepreneurship and Innovation

UNIL’s HUB Entrepreneurship and Innovation was created in 2019 to foster entrepreneurial spirit within the entire community: students, researchers and professors from UNIL’s seven faculties, as well as employees and alumni. One aspect of its work is to activate ideas and projects that have a social and environmental impact, for example through its UCreate programmes

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BioScience Network Lausanne (BSNL)
The BioScience Network Lausanne (BSNL) is an association founded in 2012 by PhD students and postdocs working in life sciences at EPFL and UNIL. Recognised by both universities, the association strives to promote the career development of young researchers in life sciences. They organise events that enable people to explore career opportunities, acquire new skills and develop a professional network.
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SV Industry
SV Industry is a student association from EPFL’s School of Life Sciences. Since 2007, its members have offered students the chance to discover the diversity of the professional life sciences landscape. The goal of this association is to connect academia and industry to help students learn more about the industrial world.
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