April 21, 2014 | by Greg Cherryholmes
While many scientists have continued their career paths into industry, or stayed in academia, there are few who have been able to successfully traverse both arenas of research as well as David Webb. In his illustrious 40+ year career, Dr. Webb (currently an Adjunct Professor at the Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) in La Jolla, California) has been actively involved in both academia and industry, holding senior positions at numerous companies and adjunct/consulting professorships at several prestigious institutions (see below for more detail). This makes Dr. Webb uniquely qualified to provide career advice to budding young scientists. I recently had a discussion with Dr. Webb about some of the transitions that young scientists (graduate students and post-doctoral fellows) face when looking to enter positions in academia or industry.
GC: What were the biggest difficulties you faced going between academia and industry? What would you have liked to know then that you know now?
DW: In 1987, it was still uncommon for successful academic scientists in the biological sciences to move to industry and those that did so were often told that to make such a move would be the end of their scientific career. The thinking went that such a move would be working on proprietary programs with little opportunity to publish and to obtain the recognition and respect of your peers. That attitude still prevails in many academic departments today such that post-docs feel as though they are settling for second best by taking such a job. So the biggest hurdle was overcoming in my own mind, the negative view of a research career in industry. Had I known that I would find not only first class research but a rigor for reproducibility of results that exists in the best industry labs, I might have been more receptive to the idea of a move. The other theme that runs through this commentary is that making a therapeutic, either a biologic or small molecule, is the single most difficult task in all of biomedical science. The failure rate of success in getting a therapeutic to market is greater than 90%. This requires singular focus, fortitude and perseverance in order to succeed.
GC: Besides passion and technical ability, what do you think is necessary to succeed in both academia and industry?
DW: As most lab heads will tell you, regardless of the setting, one needs to take a very focused approach to your research program and also realize that you will need help from your colleagues to see it through. Today’s research problems are so complex that seldom will they be solved by a single individual, although individual insight and creativity remain the hallmark of all good research.
GC: People have said that, since the biotech bubble burst, and with the government cutting federal grant money for academic funding, prospects look very bleak for the budding scientist. What words of encouragement, harsh realities, would you bestow on a young scientist just starting out their career?
DW: The biotech community is very much alive and well. This past year has seen the formation of new companies at a rate not seen since the 1990’s. These companies are highly competitive and focused with a far greater appreciation of the difficulties found in making therapeutics. They are also driven to push programs into clinical development at very rapid pace. So the future in biotech looks bright at the moment, certainly in the major centers such as Boston, San Diego and San Francisco.
Having said that, there are still significant hurdles that exist for young scientists starting their careers today. It is tough and very competitive on both sides. We are clearly in a golden age of biomedical research from a discovery perspective. The high quality and exciting nature of research now being done in academia is simply stunning. The rise of large, multinational academic research consortia dedicated to solving big problems in genomics, neuroscience and biomedical engineering is very exciting. Regardless of one’s field of interest, a deep and abiding passion for what you do will help you no matter what happens at any given moment. That and an ability to seize the moment when an opportunity presents itself are the hallmarks of all successful people.
David Webb graduated from Rutgers University with a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunology. Following graduation, Dr. Webb became a Dernham Junior Fellow of the American Cancer Society at University of California San Francisco from 1971-1973. Since then, Dr. Webb has been actively involved in both academia and industry, including positions such as Associate member at the Roche Institute of Molecular Biology and Distinguished Scientist and Institute Director positions at Syntex, Inc. Dr. Webb has held many academic research jobs in addition to the Roche Institute: Adjunct Associate Professor at Columbia University, Adjunct Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at New York Medical College, and a Consulting Professor of Cancer Biology at Stanford University. Dr. Webb has also held several management positions, in both academia and the life science industry, including: senior manager positions at several biotechnology companies (including Syrrx, OSI Pharmaceuticals, and Cadus Pharmaceutical Corp.), Chairman of the Board of Sorrento Therapeutics, Chairman Emeritus of the Board of BIOCOM, Member of the Executive Committee of the Board of CONNECT (San Diego), and Vice President of Research at Celgene-San Diego.