Academics with a drive to turn their research into commercial products often end up in the position of Chief Scientific Officer at a biotech company. Kees Melief shares his own personal experience transitioning from academia to industry.
After his retirement as an academic researcher at Leiden University, Cornelis ‘Kees’ Melief founded and became the Chief Scientific Officer (CSO) of ISA Pharmaceuticals in 2004. This Dutch biotech company develops therapeutic vaccines for cancer and infectious diseases, including Covid-19.
Melief, who has received several awards for his discoveries and lifetime contribution to cancer immunology, got into immunology almost by chance, through a student project. After building a career in academia, he decided to delve into the startup world and confronted the transition of becoming a CSO.
What were the main differences you noticed between academia and a CSO position?
The Chief Scientific Officer basically is still very much close to academic work because the CSO has to weigh different concepts against each other; they have to be extremely well-informed considering the recent literature. They also have to be aware of the competitive space and possible alternatives, from watching both the literature as well as all communications from the competition. It’s not something I was doing a lot as an academic, but as a CSO you have to watch what kind of press releases come forward from companies with similar goals. And of course, those are more frequent from companies that are listed on the Nasdaq or Euronext.
Academia is like a play garden. You can cherry-pick the research field and do whatever you like, as long as it’s productive and leads to approved grants and interesting publications. But in a biotech you have to have very precise goals. So, although the research is still interesting, it is much more goal-oriented and therefore streamlined. Side trips are actually not productive, because then you lose time and money. In academic careers, although there is team building as well, a lot is focused on personal recognition, in particular through presentations, publications and so on. Whereas in biotech you are working together as a team to bring in new treatments to patients. That transition is actually quite interesting, and, once you get used to it, also rewarding.
What was the biggest lesson you learned during your time in academia?
In the 80s, we showed at the Netherlands Cancer Institute that we could get rid of large human B-cell tumors placed in immunodeficient mice with monoclonal antibodies. At the time, we never considered that we should patent the monoclonal antibodies full speed and make it into a commercial product as soon as we could, because patenting things was not in my system yet. One day I was visited by Herbert Heineker, a Dutchman who was one of the pioneers of gene technology. He came by unannounced, just because he heard about our work. He came by and said, “Kees, listen. I know you guys are doing excellent work, good science, but if you don’t patent your inventions, then at best it will be a small clinical trial in the Leiden University Hospital, and that’s it. Humankind will not benefit from your inventions. You have to patent inventions. That’s the way things work.”
I started thinking about it and decided that he was right, absolutely right. And so from that time onward, before publishing interesting results, we always checked whether the finding would be patentable as an innovative diagnostic or therapy. Those patents allowed us to found ISA Pharmaceuticals. So my early experience taught me a lesson that was essential. In those days in academic circles, patenting and commercialization was usually looked upon unfavorably, at least in the Netherlands. It was considered something by which you wanted to make money only instead of wanting to save mankind. For me personally, the rewards of seeing good clinical are by far the greatest satisfaction you can have.
Do you have a preferred leadership style?
I am trying to inspire the scientists at ISA Pharmaceuticals by coming up with stimulating and innovating ideas. Ideas that can be first tested in vitro in human cell experiments or in preclinical animal experiments, if necessary. I’m very much science-driven. I strongly believe that if the scientific concepts have been validated, it’s the best guarantee of a successful biotech.
What advice would you give someone coming out of academia with the idea of becoming the CSO of a company?
Well, I would advise them to do so if he absolutely believes in the technology of that company, and if he has a good appreciation of the medical need for the product being developed. I would also advise him to be patient because of all the regulatory processes that one has to go through and hurdles to overcome. I sometimes compare it to a circus dog that has to jump through burning hoops.
It’s very important to listen to what others have to say, depending on their expertise and role in the company. I already mentioned that teamwork is even more important than in academia. Listen carefully to their arguments, but also be prepared to bring up strong scientific arguments if they want to make shortcuts that you do not consider feasible or prudent, or if they do not want to spend the time and the effort on developing the product that you consider optimal. You should never compromise on efficacy just because a particular product can be perhaps made faster or with fewer expenses. At all times you have to defend the sound science aspect, as well as the feasibility.