From Academia to Industry: The Biomedical Industry Beckons


You have recently graduated with a master's degree in materials science, specializing in the field of biomaterials. You're ready to leave academia and try your luck in a related industry in Canada. Where do you start?

Jason Hendry's career search led him to Millenium Biologix Inc. (MBI), where he is a biomaterials engineer at this growing biomedical company. His primary focus is on the development and processing of synthetic bone grafts for orthopedic and tissue engineering applications. But he also applies his knowledge of materials analysis and characterization techniques to MBI's diverse operations.

Education: The First Step

Hendry obtained his B.Eng.Sc. from the University of Western Ontario (UWO). At UWO, he majored in metallurgy/materials science. He continued his studies at the University of Toronto's Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering (IBBME). Under the supervision of R. M. Pilliar, Hendry's research project involved the surface modification of titanium and cobalt-based alloys for reducing the fretting corrosion of orthopedic and dental implants. While at IBBME, Hendry also acquired private sector work experience by working on projects for several companies, which he obtained through various contacts within and outside the institute. These projects included the failure analysis of vascular stents for a medical device firm and wear analysis of tungsten carbide punches for BCL Magnetics, a lamination and magnetics products manufacturer.

After 3 years of study and hands-on experience, Hendry graduated in 1999 from U of T with a M.A.Sc. in Metallurgy and Materials Science.

Starting the Job Search

With his education complete, Jason's next challenge was to tackle the job market. His experience working on industry and medical-related projects while at U of T introduced him to the fast-paced and result-oriented environment of the biomedical field. He found industry research to be stimulating and rewarding, thus leading him to the conclusion that a career outside of academia was ideal for him.

He began his job hunt by conducting an extensive search of companies potentially in need of an engineer with his skills. While there were opportunities with various American companies, Jason wished to remain in Canada, even though fewer prospects were available to an engineer with his specialized expertise. Even so, there were some Canadian contenders--World Heart Corp., Ballard Power Systems, MDS Sciex, Baxter Health Care, Medtronics, and Nortel Networks.

It was at a conference hosted by the Canadian Biomaterials Society that Hendry learned of a biotechnology firm called Millenium Biologix Inc. in Kingston, Ontario. Millenium Biologix is focused on developing bioactive, synthetic bone grafts for the repair of skeletal trauma resulting from injury or disease. Intrigued by MBI's activities, Hendry sent his résumé and a cover letter to the company. His timing was fortunate, as MBI was undergoing an expansion of its operations, and Hendry's background was an ideal fit with its requirements.

Roles and Responsibilities

Since starting at MBI over a year ago, Hendry has taken on numerous responsibilities. His first project was the pursuit of new developments in MBI's synthetic bone graft technology. These bone grafts are porous, ceramic implants that are inserted into a defect site, where they act as a scaffold to support the ingrowth of new tissue and promote bone healing. As the tissue heals, the bone graft is resorbed by osteoclasts (bone-consuming cells), and is eventually replaced by natural, healthy bone tissue via osteoblasts (bone-building cells). The bone grafts can be implantable (in vivo) or used for in vitro tissue engineering.

Hendry is also involved with a new project that focuses on enhanced bone grafts that incorporate growth factors. MBI has developed BCSP, a synthetic peptide that accelerates the healing response, thereby improving patient recovery and reducing health care costs.

In addition to technical responsibilities, there are many administrative duties that form a part of an engineer's role in industry. For example, Hendry deals with regulatory agencies like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Health Canada in order to have MBI's synthetic bone biomaterial approved for commercial sale. There are also matters related to product distribution that must be managed, such as product development, packaging, and sterilization.

There have also been mentoring opportunities within the company. MBI's connections to academic institutions, particularly Queen's University, have given employees like Hendry the opportunity to become an industrial supervisor to graduate students (in the master's, Ph.D., and postdoctoral programs). Jason also oversees MBI's international summer students whose research projects are linked to the company's product development activities.

In industry, an engineer's research experience often encompasses many areas. Hendry's materials expertise has been leveraged to support other projects within the company, including materials characterization expertise and failure analysis in the design and construction of an advanced materials processing payload, to be located on the International Space Station. Hendry notes, "Performing both technical and administrative roles in a wide scope of activities adds variety to my work day and has improved my business and management skills. As well, it gives me the 'big picture' of MBI's operations and direction."

Advice to Others

Hendry advises individuals thinking of pursuing a career in the biomedical industry to consider these skills that he feels are vital to being successful:

  • Communication skills--oral and particularly written

  • Flexibility, open-mindedness, and a diverse background

  • Understanding business needs, not just scientific or academic arenas

  • Finding synergies between one's research specialty and a particular industry's requirements--for example, Hendry's implant research is highly relevant to the orthopedics field

  • Demonstrating an understanding of how to apply the research to industry, and how this research can address industry needs

  • Participating in industry-relevant projects, which may be more advantageous from a career advancement point of view than purely theoretical research

"A key difference [between academia and industry]" Hendry remarks, "is that industry is highly focused on product development and is constrained by time and budgets. This can limit the opportunity to pursue areas of scientific interest outside core program objectives. However, the biomedical industry offers an exciting, fast-paced environment where you can see results quickly applied to the marketplace to benefit others."

Hendry has found his career path to be highly rewarding, and he encourages those interested in working in the biomedical industry to pursue similar career goals, keeping in mind the challenges they may face in their transition from an academic to a nonacademic environment.

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