Seeding Scientists

CREDIT: Courtesy of Katherine Terracciano

Most research universities have technology transfer offices to help researchers transfer their ideas to the private sector. But those partnerships are good for more than transferring intellectual property. Sometimes they yield a talent transfer as well: It's not unusual for young researchers involved in those projects to join the companies that sponsored their academic pursuits. That kind of transfer benefits both companies and researchers, say experts from both sides: Emerging scientists gain access to plum jobs right out of school, while companies cultivate promising employees with the specific skills they need to compete in their industry.

"It allows them to address their research interests collaboratively … and also leads to a pipeline of talent. They may or may not take the exact technology for their product, but they'll have somebody who is at the leading edge in that area." -- Celia Merzbacher

In highly technical fields like semiconductors, there's a very large pool of scientists and engineers to hire from, says Celia Merzbacher, vice president of innovative partnerships at the Semiconductor Research Corporation (SRC), which is based in Durham, North Carolina. But it's not always easy to find candidates with the skills to become effective workers right away. "When I ask companies, 'Do you have trouble hiring people?' they often will say, 'No,' " she says. "But if I ask, 'Do you have trouble hiring people with the right skills who are really good?' then they acknowledge that, yeah, sometimes they settle for less."

To avoid settling, some of these companies have set up programs to locate and train top young scientists and engineers while they're still in school. SRC, which was founded in 1982 to facilitate academic-industrial partnerships between universities worldwide and companies such as IBM, Intel, and Texas Instruments, gives companies the opportunity to develop talent and intellectual property at the same time.

Today, SRC spends about $100 million each year on research projects at more than 100 universities, Merzbacher says, funding about 1500 graduate students. For each project, a company sends a liaison to the host university to mentor young scientists and make sure the project aligns with industry interests. These liaisons also act as talent scouts, she says, looking for graduating scientists who would fit well in their companies. "It allows them to address their research interests collaboratively … and also leads to a pipeline of talent," Merzbacher says. "They may or may not take the exact technology for their product, but they'll have somebody who is at the leading edge in that area."

The students get prioritized access to jobs, she says, because the companies know exactly what skills they possess. In any given year, Merzbacher says, about 40% to 45% of graduates who participated in an SRC project are hired by one of SRC's member companies. The students "aren't required or obligated to work for a member company when they graduate, but they've had a lot of opportunity to interact and get to know them and make contacts that lead to offers when they graduate," she says.

The situation is similar for companies that participate in the North Carolina Biotechnology Center (NCBC) consortium, based in Research Triangle Park. Jim Shamp, senior editor for corporate communications at NCBC, says that the idea of talent transfer in academic-industrial partnerships is "very much on the radar in North Carolina, and has been for some time."

The reality, Shamp says, is that fewer than 40% of the postdocs working in biotechnology in North Carolina will wind up in a tenure-track academic position. So, significant numbers of highly trained scientists look for jobs elsewhere, usually in government or the private sector. But many of these scientists have invested so much of their time and energy into pursuing a career in academia that they're not prepared for other kinds of work, he says. "Many of these are talented scientists who don't have the foggiest about how to work in industry."

NCBC provides that needed bridge. Companies in the consortium locate postdocs at universities and offer them funding to work on industry projects in such areas as nanobiotechnology, marine biotechnology, and vaccine development. In addition to stipends, the companies pay for those postdocs to attend conferences, and arrange educational sessions with people in the business side of biotech so that they -- the postdocs -- can learn entrepreneurial skills, Shamp says. Participating postdocs aren't required to join their sponsoring companies at the end of the partnership, but many of them choose to, he says. "There's a lot of matchmaking going on."

Some academic institutions, like the Olin College of Engineering, an undergraduate engineering college in Needham, Massachusetts, prefer to arrange their own industrial partnerships. Academic-industrial partnerships are the cornerstone of Olin's curriculum, says Andrew Bennett, a mechanical engineer who oversees the college's capstone research project. To graduate, students must team up to complete a senior capstone project proposed, sponsored, and overseen by companies such as AGCO, Boston Scientific, IBM, and Raytheon.

"The students act like a team of professional engineers," Bennett says. "They're required to meet with the sponsors or talk to them over the phone at least once a week. They conduct design reviews, program reports, budget scheduling -- the whole shooting match."

These partnerships can lead to job offers for students who impress their sponsoring companies over the course of the project. "I wouldn't necessarily call it common," Bennett says, "but it happens often enough that these companies are excited about the prospect every year." Over the last 6 years, 5% of students who did a capstone at Olin were hired by the company they worked with during their project, with an additional 6% hired by one of Olin's other sponsoring companies.

One company that's come to rely heavily on Olin grads is North Andover, Massachusetts-based engineering company Parietal Systems Inc., which works with the U.S. Department of Defense on a variety of math-related software projects. John Fox, the company's president and CEO, came across a description of the Olin capstone project and figured it would be a good way to identify emerging talent.

"The way I look at it is we're competing for talent with people like Google and Microsoft and places like that, so every little bit we do that gets recognition goes a long way," he says. "And because we could actually work with them on their research project, we could get really hands-on with some of the students and really get to know some of them really well, and at the same time get some intellectual property back."

Over the course of their partnership, Fox says, he's had a chance to shape Olin's curriculum to better fit the needs of companies like his. During the first year of their partnership, Olin was teaching fairly traditional models for project management, while most people in the field of defense-related software today are clambering for more agile management techniques that allow researchers to pursue open-ended questions more freely.

"So during the first year [of the partnership], we went back and told them, 'Look, I've got to tell you the truth, I think you guys are using the wrong set of skills and techniques. Why don't you look at this?' And last year they switched from teaching more traditional kinds of project management to a more agile program," Fox says. "That is really useful for us because it means when people come on board, they're ready. They've have 4 or 5 months of training that gives them really hands-on training and abilities to run a project the way that we do it."

Katherine Terracciano (CREDIT: Courtesy of Katherine Terracciano)
Katherine Terracciano did her senior capstone project on robotic navigation at Olin College and was hired by the company who sponsored her project, Parietal Systems Inc.

Katherine Terracciano, who graduated from Olin this year and did her capstone project with Parietal Systems developing software to help robots navigate rough terrain, now works as a data analyst and mechanical engineering specialist for the company. Fox was her mentor during the project, and at its conclusion he offered her a job.

"I'm a mechanical engineer and Parietal is mostly a software company, so I knew I'd be a little out of my element," she says. "They have me working on a project with people who have Ph.D.s in math and software engineering, so [Fox] likes that I can analyze the data with a mechanical engineer's intuition."

Terracciano is one of three Olin graduates working for the 24-person company. The Olin grads have worked out so well that Fox says Parietal Systems will hire Olin graduates exclusively for the foreseeable future. "I'm very happy with how it's worked out," he says.

Michael Price is a staff writer for Science Careers.

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