Doing a PhD is an amazing experience. You learn how to think, how to solve problems and, in my case, how science works. This is particularly true in St Andrews, home to one of the best universities in Europe. Translating the knowledge accumulated over the years is important. Using your own work to empower others and provide solutions for the many challenges we are facing is – in my opinion – a moral duty of each and every scientist. Moving from a research focus to an industrial one is not an easy task, mainly because, as academics, we are vastly unprepared for it. Academia has a vertical approach to research: we spend years in academia gathering in-depth knowledge over a few topics, but we do not necessarily learn how to bring our research outside the academic sphere. Translating research requires a horizontal approach: we need to learn the science and how companies, logistics, investment, and intellectual property work. This article is aimed at those of you who want to discover how to transform your research or scientific knowledge into reality.
A simple way to learn these horizontal skills is by ‘experiencing’ them, and a good place to start is GapSummit. I had the honour to participate last year in GapSummit, a highly selective event which aims to nurture the next generation of leaders in life sciences. Attending the event was an amazing experience, for which I have to thank my supervisor Silvia Paraccihini for the support. GapSummit is a five-days summit to discuss the future of life sciences and how these can solve the current challenges, or ‘gaps’, we face. Challenges ranging from our dependence on pesticide for massive agriculture production to the issues in the pharmaceutical industry, where developing a single drug cost up to billions of dollars and 10 years. This year’s event was held at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Boston (USA), the centre for life science and innovation in the world.
The idea behind GapSummit and Global Biotech Revolution (the not-for-profit company that organises the event) is simple: betting on the future. Betting on the future means to invest in the new generation, and the best way to do so is by bridging the current generation of experts in life science with the future generation, us. This is what GapSummit does: connecting 100 highly-qualified young ‘Leaders of the Future’ with the current leaders in industry and academia. The 100 ‘Leaders of the Future’ included PhD students, young professionals, and entrepreneurs from 44 countries all over the world. This year’s event featured 75 top managers and CEOs from pharmaceutical, genetics and agricultural companies (Pfizer, Novartis, Sanofi, Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca, Bayer, Biogen, Amgen, Addgene, Ginko Bioworks, to mention a few), directors of innovation and research centres (Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, National Science Foundation, National Academy of Medicine, Thailand Center of Excellence for Life Sciences, Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, IBM Health division) together with eminent Professors such as George Church and Nobel Prize Laureate Philip Sharp.
The event was kickstarted by Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the current Director of the World Health Organisation, who gave a speech on how our generation must use science to create a better world. During the five days, the speakers engaged in eleven panels, discussing the future of different topics, from the use of Artificial Intelligence in life science to the improvement of healthcare systems in developing countries and state-of-the-art techniques to increase the yield of crops in a pesticides-free fashion. Professor Philip Sharp enlightened us with his vision of the future directions of medicine, while Professor George Church illustrated the power of genetics and its implications in the coming future. GapSummit is not only to discuss the future, but it is also to invent it. For the five months before the event, teams of five people worked remotely – supported by a mentor – on a practical solution to solve one of the many ‘gaps’. The week before the summit started, teams delivered a business proposal and eight teams – out of the initial twenties – passed to the final stage. The finalists pitched their projects at the Broad Institute, with the winner being awarded six months of mentorship to kickstart their project. My team worked on a novel system to improve and reduce the time of genomic-led clinical trials and we reached the final stage. Throughout this experience, we had the honour to be mentored by Max Kelly – co-founder of several Virgin branches and now Senior Vice President of TechStar, one of the largest start-up incubators in Europe.
This experience has been amazing. I learnt the future direction of life science from both the academic and industrial side. I learnt how companies, policies, and investment all combine to affect how science enters in everyone’s lives. I learnt how to develop a remote business project. On top of all, I broadened my network with like-minded people and industry leaders. This is the power of GapSummit! The impact of GapSummit during the five years it ran is tangible: 18 companies were created, several papers filed, and a growing and active alumni network of 500+ young ‘Leaders of the future’ was formed.
If you have read until this point it means you are interested in such events like me, in which case you are lucky … GapSummit 2020 applications are officially open! This year’s confirmed speakers include Nobel Prize Laureate Gregory Winter, the executive director of the Europeans Medicine Agency Professor Guido Rasi and the Chief Scientist of the World Health Organisation Dr Soumya Swaminathan among others. Be part of this fantastic network!