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Industry Spotlight

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Polymer Chemist – Sustainable Technology at Scott Bader Co. Ltd

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INDUSTRY SPOTLIGHT

Interview

Featuring

Stefan Lawrenson

by the p2i Network

Stefan's Journey

Could you give us a snapshot of where you are now and what led you to pursuing a career in industry.

 

When I engaged with the p2i Network, I was working on a collaborative research project between industry and academia at the University of Birmingham, funded by bp. I then moved to a knowledge transfer partnership (KTP) - it's normally a collaborative project between industry and academia. Academia provides the background knowledge and the idea is to try and translate that to a product for a small to medium enterprise company. I’ve now moved into industry full-time. I joined a company called Scott Bader, which is a fairly large adhesives, composites and polymer company.

Can you describe what the company does and what your role/position is in the company? 

Scott Bader Co. Ltd create polymers for various applications, such as coatings, adhesives, gel coats, and 3D printing. They've started a new team looking at innovation in these sectors and the idea is to drive new platforms within the business. I’ve joined as a sustainable polymer chemist so I’ve got a particular focus on sustainability and green chemistry. It's a very new role and we're looking to build a team over the next 18 months to two years that can explore these new chemistries and ideas.

 

Is there a recent achievement you are especially proud of?

A lot of the work I completed for the small company I was working with as part of my KTP was actually more involved with their product development. My actual research project didn't work particularly well, so to fill the time I started working on small projects for them. And they actually launched the product. It is the first product that was wholly my idea which was really cool.

What has been the biggest challenge you faced and how have you overcome this challenge?

I think with research there's always challenges. It's a tough job and you're constantly having to step back, reassess the problem, and try and overcome that. During the last project I did, we were trying to translate chemistry from an academic lab to a fundamental 3D printing company and bridging that gap was incredibly hard. The project finished and it didn't necessarily end up where we wanted it to, but we learned so much. Both the academic side and the industry side learned a lot about how difficult it is translating technologies, especially in a fairly new or emerging field like 3D-printing. I think that will be an ongoing challenge.

 

In your experience, what are the similarities and differences between academia and industry, in respect to mind set and skills?

In my personal experience, I think industry is much more focused on deadlines and meeting a particular demand, whereas in academia I find that's a lot more flexible. I think from a research perspective, in academia you perhaps get more freedom to play with new ideas. In industry I’ve not necessarily found that's the case just yet, but I think that really varies from role to role. In terms of mind set, I think there's a lot of overlap. Certainly in science, there seems to be a big divide between academia and industry. One group of people like it one way and the other a different way. But I think in reality, they are quite similar. I think it's quite a big transition - or it was me personally - because it's just a different way of working, and the demands are different. 

In both roles there is a focus on applied innovation. In one case it's applying it to secure grant funding for innovative research and generate scientific papers, and in the other it's about generating products and knowledge that the company can utilise.  

What were the skills you already had as a researcher that helped you with your current career and what skills did you need to learn?

I think I came from a very privileged position in that I’ve done multiple postdocs that were focused within industry. I acknowledge that's not very common. I think I got thrown in the deep end and learned on my feet and it's a very fortunate position for me to be in. Coming from your PhD into a position like that, you come with a great ability to problem solve, particularly for your specific field. That's why we're researchers - we innovate and come up with ideas in a particular field. 

A skill I didn't necessarily have when I started, was the ability to communicate to a diverse audience. You're so used to discussing ideas with chemists or people that are as educated, if not more educated, in your field. You get used to speaking a certain language and then all of a sudden you're on a big collaborative project and you've got engineers, you've got people that specialise in scaling up, you've got marketing and business experts. They don't talk science and they're coming from a very different angle, so communicating complex ideas is quite tough. However, if you can nail that skill you're in a really advantageous position. I found that on industry projects or when it's very focused meetings on what you're doing, people just care about results rather than your thought processes. Often you will lead with just the highlights, the key points and a little information on why that is the case.

What/who gave you the confidence to transition from academia to industry and how did you get to your current position?

I think when you look at some of the statistics in academia you get a feel for how difficult it is. To actually see the figures of people progressing to professorships, it’s obvious that it's getting harder and harder.  In industry it's still very hard, but I think there's more opportunities out there. There’s more variety, and you can still apply a lot of your learning from your research. 

I think for me, it was always a focus on trying to develop products or things that have application in the real world. Sometimes there can be a bit of a disconnect between what is academically interesting and what is actually useful. For me it’s about going beyond publication, and about how we can utilise the product or findings in a way to make people's lives better.

Can you list a few aspects (mindset, skills and competencies) you have observed in yourself after participating in the p2i event?

 

An entrepreneurial mind set is not necessarily something you come across unless you engage with these kinds of entrepreneurial training programs. I think it's a unique way of thinking that perhaps from a purely academic background, you don’t really have any exposure to. The opportunity to see people who are a few years ahead of you in terms of career path and how they have transitioned to whatever they're doing now - whether it's running a company or working in a small start-up - is incredibly inspiring.  The opportunity to kind of talk to those people, pick their brains on what they've been doing to facilitate that was really interesting. 

I think another thing for me was working with a much broader group of people. I took part in a venture creation weekend and a p2i In Action event and these are super intense couple of days but I loved it. There's people from a wide variety of backgrounds and you're all working towards a common goal. You very quickly learn to work with what you're good at, form a better team, lead the team and really deliver on a key goal.

Communication was a big one because it's a networking event. It's an opportunity to work on a small project with a different group of people, so communication is a really heavy focus at these events.

How have these skills helped you in your career in industry?

I think they reassured and motivated me. It reassured me that I am going in the right direction.  I think a good take away for me was just getting a better sense of what I needed to be doing to make that transition to industry. It was a good opportunity to speak to people from outside of academia. One criticism I would make of the academic bubble is I’ve always found it very difficult to engage with people outside of academia. There was never a huge amount of opportunities to do that, so the first time for me was engaging with people at p2i network events. 

For me, the training confirmed what I want to do, how I need to do it and that events such as the p2i event are the kind of things I need to engage with to deliver on that. Meeting like-minded people and hearing their experiences was really inspiring for me and gave me clarity on my career preferences.

It also gave me a much better opportunity to focus on picking up skills I needed to develop, or things that I lacked in my CV, that would help me transition to what I was going to do next. 

Would you recommend engaging in entrepreneurial activities to other early career researchers? Can you explain why?

Absolutely. I would encourage you, even if you're not focused on being an entrepreneur and you don't want to start your own business. It's still a good idea to get a sense of what that mind set entails, the focus and the creativity that comes with that. The opportunity to engage with a program like this gives you a chance to take all that learning and apply it to what you're doing now. I think you need a bit of an entrepreneurial mind set whatever you're doing. It's not something you gain otherwise through many other avenues that you're exposed to if you're going a traditional kind of academic track.

What are the top skills you would encourage an entrepreneurial postdoc to develop, regardless of their career path?

Communication skills. When you're a researcher, presenting and communicating things is often a very nerve-wracking experience. By engaging in things like this, going to conferences, talking to people and presenting your work, you will soon get accustomed to it and you don't get as nervous as you used to. I certainly found that. Ultimately it's kind of one of the most important skills  - whatever you're doing, you will probably have to give a pitch at some point. The sooner you accept that and try to focus on developing the skills, it really benefits you.

I think in addition to that, the ability to talk to different people from different backgrounds in very interdisciplinary projects, which is something I gained from the p2i event.  I never had much opportunity to work with people that were, for example, doing an MBA or came from a very different background. That was new to me and it's always great to realise that you use jargon, or abbreviations that other people won’t understand and you've got to be much more specific for the way you speak.

Is there anything you would have done differently in your career trajectory - in hindsight?

I think personally just try not to dwell on that too much. Some things go well, some things don't go well and that's just research. No matter the outcome, you learn from it and you develop. I think a great example for me is the fact that the last year for me has been challenging and some things haven’t worked in the way I had hoped, but I probably wouldn't have got my new job without that background and that experience. I think whatever happens ultimately you can come out with something to show for your time.

Is there any advice you would give to postdocs who want to explore or want to pursue a non-academic career?

I think clearly define what you want to do, and don't be afraid to try a few different things. That's the beauty of a postdoc - the flexibility to try different things in your area. My research career has been very varied - I started out making very well-defined small molecules for drugs, then making plastics, then smart plastics and 3D printing. It's all been very different and it all stitches together. So, just try it - you might enjoy it. You might find that one thing that really connects with you and is really motivating. I’d rather go into a job that I’m going to enjoy and I’m going to stay in for an extended period of time. And it takes time - there's no rush. Don’t be afraid to try new things to find what you want to do.

Read More p2i Researcher Spotlight Interviews

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