A survey of the views and needs of Biochemical Society members working in small to medium sized companies

M Withnall, Assistant Director, Policy

Executive Summary

  1. After considering an earlier report that identified ways in which the Society's Regional Groups could interact more with bioscientists working for small to medium-sized companies (SMEs), the Professional and Education Committee (PEC) recommended that members in SMEs should also be consulted on actvities that the Society could undertake that would be of particular value to them. This paper summarises the responses to a questionnaire survey.
  2. Most members who contributed to the survey were in research and development (R&D) positions, although a smaller number worked in business or project management, sales and marketing, or regulatory affairs. Most still considered themselves biochemists although a significant proportion did not attend Biochemical Society scientific meetings. The main reasons given for joining the Society and for retaining membership were the same-keeping up to date with general biochemistry developments, particularly through The Biochemist, and accessing information about, and attending, scientific meetings. The largest group of employers was in the niche pharmaceuticals/drug discovery area.
  3. There was overwhelming support for the Society to introduce focused workshops on particular aspects of biotechnology for networking purposes. The Industrial Biochemistry and Biotechnology Group (IBBG) is planning such a workshop with the Regional Development Agency, Southern Biosciences, and the Society's Scottish and Irish Regional Groups intend to collaborate with their respective bioscience Development Agencies. It is recommended that the Society gives full support to ensuring that these collaborations are fruitful.
  4. There was only slightly lesser support for the establishment of a web directory of the interests and expertise of academic bioscientists, to serve as a source of contacts. However, rather than the Society trying to persuade more bioscientists to register details on the UK Life Sciences Committee Database of Life Scientists, it is recommended that it should seek to link the site to a number of existing databases containing similar information, to create a 'one-stop shop' for members.
  5. A number of other possible activities was suggested;
    • Disseminating information on funding and funding agreements between companies and academic institutions, on licensing, and IPR;
    • Helping to establish a scheme that allows small companies to benchmark aspects of their organizational systems against recognised good practice;
    • Providing advice on careers, and professional development;
    • Arranging e-mail discussion fora;
    • Introducing the possibility of corporate membership.

Some of the above activities are well within the Society's capabilities, whereas others would appear to be better provided by a trade organization rather than a learned society. The Society needs to consider where there is scope to collaborate with other agencies such as the BioIndustries Association or the ABPI to meet the identified needs.

1. Introduction

More than 80% of the Biochemical Society's members work in academia, and many of the members in industry work for large pharmaceutical companies. Only a small proportion is known to work for SMEs, yet this sector is predicted to grow markedly and become a major employer of life scientists.

An important part of the Business Plan of the Society for Policy, Educational and Professional Affairs is to provide a service to members in small companies that will encourage them to retain membership and to take an active part in the affairs of the Society. A report on how the Society's Regional Sections could collaborate with agencies having responsibility for developing regional bioscience industry was compiled earlier in 1999, following discussions with the Directors of a number of such agencies (Withnall M., Encouraging greater interaction of the Society's Regional Sections with bioscience SMEs. Biochemical Society internal report, 1999). On the recommendation of the Professional and Education Committee a questionnaire was compiled to elucidate the views of members working in small companies on the Society's current activities, and on what the Society could be doing that would be of particular interest or benefit to them. This report outlines the findings of the survey and discusses their implications.

2. Survey population and response rate

The survey questionnaire (Appendix 1) sought factual information about the job type of each respondent, about the size and nature of the company, and about company interests, in order to place the responses to some of the questions about the Biochemical Society into context. The questionnaire was distributed to 89 people in the Society's database of industrial members who were considered to work for SMEs (based on information supplied in their membership forms), and to a further 37 members who had not named the employer in their membership information. It is very likely that some of the latter would not have responded to the survey because the employer did not qualify. Completed questionnaires were returned by 33 members working for 23 different companies.

3. Respondents and their employers

Company business areas and jobs held
Responses were weighted towards small to medium sized rather than very small companies, with 12 employing more than 51 staff, 9 employing 11-50, none employing 6-10, and 2 employing 1-5. Data on the number of biochemists employed by each company were considered unreliable and have not been analysed. A number of respondents was not able to provide the information, and there were instances where people employed by the same company gave quite different figures. It appeared that some were providing data for their particular section or group rather than the company as a whole. The largest group of employers was in the niche pharmaceuticals/drug discovery business area (10), with smaller numbers in immunology/vaccines, pharmaceutical services, molecular biology reagents supply, and other categories ( Table 1). The majority of respondents was directly involved in R&D (26), whilst much smaller numbers were employed in business or product management, sales and marketing, or regulatory affairs (Table 2). Twenty-four respondents considered that they were still biochemists, with two more giving qualified agreement, whilst 7 no longer considered themselves to be biochemists. This latter group did not necessarily constitute people whose job title might indicate that they had moved away from bioscience research, but their interests must nevertheless have diversified: 5 held positions in research and development, one was a Director of neurochemistry, and one in production support.

Satisfaction with new graduates, and training provided by the companies
Perhaps surprisingly in view of what is often reported, the majority of respondents (20) considered that their companies were happy with the preparation for industry that graduates receive from the education system. Nine disagreed with this, one partly agreed, and three did not comment. Nothing could be concluded from the size distribution of those companies that were dissatisfied with new graduates (>51 staff (5), 11-50 (3), 1-5 (1)). The reasons for dissatisfaction were predictable:

lack of practical skills/inability to design experiments8 citings
deficiencies in numeracy3 citings
lack of awareness of industrial time pressures3 citings
lack of communication skills1 citing
lack of familiarity with equipment1 citing

Nearly all the companies provided systematic training. The nature of the training is classified according to company size in Table 3. It would be expected that commercial pressures might limit training opportunities for those working in very small companies, but this could not be inferred from the present survey because of the small sample size and the uneven distribution of company sizes. For companies in the 11-50, and >51, employees bands (most of those included in the survey) internal training (probably including on the job training) and external courses/workshops were the most frequently cited methods of training and developing staff, with some opportunities for obtaining a higher qualification through the company.

Company collaborations, and factors affecting company development
Only two respondents stated that their companies had no external collaborations. The extents of the collaborations stated for other companies were as follows: with other companies alone (1); with companies and universities (4); with companies, universities and Research Council institutions (5); with companies, universities and government laboratories (4); and with companies, universities, Research Council institutions, and government laboratories (7). Most of the companies had thus developed contacts with a range of institutions. The benefits that respondents considered their companies to gain from the collaborations are listed in Table 4. Those most frequently cited related to accessing academic scientific expertise and the opportunity to discuss new ideas (22), or accessing equipment or reagents (6). Access to finance, or the opportunity to share development costs (5), were also considered important.

Many respondents (18) did not know whether their companies had contacts with the government's Biotechnology Directorate, or failed to answer the question. Six responded that their companies did, and 9 that theirs did not. Of those with contacts, two involved LINK programmes, one had received a SMART award, one involved the Teaching Company Scheme, and one involvement in a Regional Biotechnology Group. Respondents cited the benefits of such contacts as being business development or networking, although one respondent was less sure of the benefits and said that the company was reviewing its involvement. The majority of respondents (20) were not aware of the government's Foresight initiative, 11 were aware of it, and two did not answer the question.

It was anticipated that the major factors affecting the futures of companies would depend on their states of development, which might be related to size, and so responses to this question were grouped according to numbers of employees (Table 5). Near-market factors did, in fact, dominate the responses from companies with >51 employees, together with continued access to finance (which was also stated to be important for the 11-50 employee group). All groups identified the need to be able to recruit and retain staff with appropriate technical expertise, to continue being innovative, and remain competitive. Individuals in two of the groups suggested that public acceptance of biotech products would be an important factor affecting company futures.

4. Interactions of respondents with the Biochemical Society

Reasons for joining, and for retaining membership
The predominant reasons given for joining originally, and for retaining membership, were the same (Table 6) - to keep informed about general developments in biochemistry, with many citing The Biochemist as the means to achieve this; and to receive information about, or to attend, the various scientific meetings that the Society organizes. The opportunity for networking was cited as a reason by several (6) respondents, with smaller numbers referring to subsidised meetings costs or travel grants, or enhanced professional status.

Attendance at meetings, and topics of interest
Twenty respondents said that they attended Society scientific meetings. Of these, 7 attended on average less than one meeting each year, 9 attended one, 3 attended one to two, and 1 two meetings. Not surprisingly, the meeting topics of interest matched fairly closely the technology interests and involvements of the companies employing the respondents (Table 7). They fell principally within the general categories of aspects of protein biochemistry, molecular biology and biotechnology, and 'biochemical pharmacology' in the broad sense-particularly mechanisms of regulating cell function.

Of the 13 who did not attend Society meetings, the job titles of 10 suggested that they were still in R&D positions, 2 were commercial or managing directors, and 1 was in regulatory affairs. Eleven out of the 13 still considered themselves biochemists. These figures suggest that a number of practising biochemists did not find Society meetings sufficiently relevant to their (more diversified or applied?) interests (one respondent, a team leader in protein biochemistry, actually stated this).

Although a significant number of respondents did not attend Biochemical Society meetings, meetings or conference attendance was one of the two most frequently cited methods by which respondents kept up to date with biochemistry (23 citings). The other was by scanning the scientific literature (22). A number of respondents obtained information on developments from collaborators, consultants, or by networking (13), whilst others mentioned the web (10), specialist trade publications (6), or patent searches (3).

Only 4 out of 33 respondents said that they had had contact with the Society's Industrial Biochemistry and Biotechnology Group (IBBG, whereas 28 out of 33 said that they would like to receive details of IBBG activities. The 4 with prior contact had found it useful, although one found IBBG 'too academic'.

Additional activities or services that respondents would like from the Society
The survey asked for comments on two possible activities that had been identified in the earlier discussions with the directors of regional biotechnology development agencies, and invited suggestions for additional activities. The suggested possible activities were:

  1. running focused workshops on particular aspects of biotechnology, with the aim of promoting networks between SMEs, universities, and potential suppliers or customers;
  2. establishing a web directory of the interests and expertise of academic bioscientists to serve as a source of contacts.

The concept of focused workshops received strong support from 32 respondents, with only one rejecting it, arguing that contacts are best made informally. Those in support commented on the potential value of such workshops for networking and for establishing collaborations, and a number of topics for workshops were suggested, in which aspects of applied protein biochemistry were prominent (Appendix 2). Some delegates added a cautionary note that in order to attract delegates from small companies the workshops must be very well focused so as to be particularly relevant to them (the IBBG is well aware of this fact). The concept of a web directory was slightly less well supported, with 27 in favour, 4 against and 1 unsure. Those in favour commented on the efficiency of having such a site for identifying potential collaborators or consultants, for finding who had particular equipment or reagents, or for targeting commercial information (Appendix 3). Arguments against the concept were that similar information was already available from other databases, that potential collaborators could be better identified by attending meetings or from the literature, or that in practice academics listed on such databases were often unwilling to collaborate.

Eleven respondents suggested additional activities that would benefit them (Table 8). They fell within the following general categories: aiding company development by improving the provision of information about funding for academic collaborations, clarifying the terms of such collaborations, helping with information on licensing and IPR, and helping small companies benchmark their organisational systems against accepted good practice; aiding personal professional development by providing advice on careers, and helping with electronic networking and with the acquisition of management skills; and introducing the concept of corporate membership. In connection with suggestion 7 in Table 8 it should be noted that The Biochemist already has a regular feature (Cyberbiochemist) in which invited contributors identify particularly useful web sites.

5. Conclusions

The present survey yielded valuable information about the types of jobs held by members working for SMEs, and about the interests and activities of the companies. Most respondents worked in R&D and most still regarded themselves as biochemists. They were generally employed by 'young' firms which had established collaborations with other companies and with academic institutions in order to share development costs or to gain access to additional scientific or technical expertise, but which appeared to have limited awareness of the company development schemes run by the government's Biotechnology Directorate. Getting products to market, and retaining access to finance during development stages, were key company concerns, whilst the ability to recruit and retain staff with appropriate expertise was recognised to be essential for success. This information was drawn from a small sample population, but there is no reason to suspect that it was not representative of other members and their companies.

The main purpose of the survey was to obtain information on what the Society could be doing that would encourage more biochemists working for SMEs to join, or to retain their membership, and play a larger part in the affairs of the Society. In this respect it is perhaps ironic that the two reasons given most frequently for joining the Society, or for retaining membership, were the access to general biochemical information through The Biochemist, and access to scientific meetings. These are core activities in which the Society already invests a great deal of effort, and would consider that they are done well. Nevertheless, the fact that 13 out of 33 respondents, most of whom worked in R&D, did not attend Society meetings, suggests that their needs were not being met. Non-attenders may have diversified their interests from pure biochemistry to other areas of the molecular life sciences; the Society has attempted to address their needs through joint meetings with other learned societies, and by the Society interest groups collaborating with similar groups in other disciplines. Or they may feel that Society meetings do not cover applied biochemistry adequately. The IBBG operates in this area, but it was apparent that very few respondents were aware of it and what it did. IBBG has difficulty in recruiting biochemists from industry to its planning committee and would welcome some of the respondents becoming involved and providing a steer to its activities. The contact details of the 28 who requested further information have been passed on.

The overwhelming support for focused biotechnology workshops reinforced the impression gained from speaking to the Directors of Regional Biotechnology Agencies that such workshops would be of value. They, too, emphasised that the topics must be very carefully selected, and immediately relevant, in order for bioscientists from small companies to attend. The success of the Royal Society of Chemistry 'Car Boot Sales' networking meetings shows that this can be achieved. The IBBG has been in contact with Southern Biosciences (the agency responsible for developing biotech industry in the South-East) and it is intended to run jointly a pilot workshop in 2000, possibly on the topic 'Industrial applications of biosensors'. If this is successful then the scheme should be extended. The Society's Scottish and Irish groups have also established contact with their Regional Biotechnology Development Agencies with a view to organizing joint activities. The Society should do all that it can to ensure that such collaborations are fruitful.

Whilst most respondents considered that it would be useful if the Society was able to establish a web directory of the interests and expertise of academic bioscientists, this is difficult for the Society to undertake independently since it requires co-operation from so many people. There is already a searchable Database of Life Scientists at the UK Life Sciences Committee (UKLSC) web site that includes fields of interest, membership of learned societies, and publications, but in the 18 months of its existence only 84 life scientists have taken the trouble to enter information. Rather than pressing more academic bioscientists to enter details at the site it is recommended that the Society should seek to link its own Database with the existing electronic databases containing similar information that some respondents referred to. Some of the Regional Biotechnology Development Agencies are also known to be developing new databases with information about academic bioscientists in their areas.

The Professional and Education Committee is encouraged to consider the other possible activities identified as being of value to biochemists in SMEs. For some of them it is not clear that the Society is the most appropriate agency to supply the service. Thus, the Society has no particular expertise in funding arrangements for collaborations between small companies and universities, or in licensing matters or IPR, which appear to be the province of the trade association (The BioIndustries Association). But the Society could certainly bring to the attention of the Association and university development officers that problems are considered to exist that require joint attention. Likewise, the Society could be proactive with the BioIndustries Asssociation and the ABPI in trying to arrange a system to allow small companies to benchmark aspects of their performance against those of better-established, respected companies in the bioscience arena.

The Society is already active in supplying careers advice to school students and to university undergraduates and postgraduates, but has little experience of advising members already in biochemical employment. The IBBG could probably identify experienced scientists who would be prepared to offer advice in individual cases, and could help with networking, but perhaps the most valuable contribution would be to develop a page at the Society's web site that outlines career options and links to other sources of advice. The Biochemist includes articles on a wide range of matters of interest to members, so advice on the acquisition of professional and managerial skills could certainly be considered. But there is increasing emphasis on these in undergraduate and postgraduate curricula, and training is done more effectively face to face. The idea of corporate membership of the Society has been considered in the past, and should be re-addressed. It offers the possibility of disseminating information to a larger and broader readership, and could improve contacts between the Society and small companies. The terms and benefits of corporate membership would need to be agreed.

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