Using Microbiology for an Industry R&D Career

May 19, 2021

You have probably heard the stories of people taking their science to industry or moving into the business side. We interviewed Dr. Yoram Barak, Global Product Manager of Chemicals at Applied Materials, to learn about his experience in translational research. He has over 2 decades of experience in enzyme research and product development.

What Do You Currently Do as Global Product Manager at Applied Materials?

We are adapting our Industry 4.0 software solutions to the chemical industry field, and my role is to develop this product and execute in time to bring it to the market. You may ask yourself, how is microbiology relevant to this? Well, the software programs tailor solutions to improve yield and productivity in fermentation-derived products like pharma, food & beverage, etc. Specifically, the software programs employ principal knowledge of statistics and modeling to improve yield and productivity.

How Did You Get Started in Microbiology and then Transition into Industry?

My training was in environmental microbiology, where I studied microbial filtration systems to remove nitrate and phosphate from intensive fish culture systems. Then in my postdoctoral studies, I engineered microbial enzymes to remove heavy metals at a faster rate and to act as in vivo cancer therapeutic engines. This opportunity inspired me to focus on an industrial application research career, rather than an academic career. My skills and expertise were a good fit for the first company I joined, which focused on directed evolution of enzymes and strains for biobased chemicals and fuels.

What Were Your Projects in Industry? How Much Time Did You Spend on Research vs. the Business Side?

My initial industry projects spanned from developing the best enzymes to break down cellulosic sugars into digestible monomers, to creating the best yeast strain to consume these sugars, to identifying the best in class fatty alcohol production host for the detergent industry. In the latter, I was managing a relatively big team across various disciplines like molecular biology, biochemistry, analytics, process chemistry and engineering. This team was successful in delivering technical milestones in record time, which gave us the advantage to negotiate more comfortably with business partners.

After transitioning to BASF, a German multinational chemical company, I continued as a group leader at the Central Research & Development (R&D) Department, looking at broad range biobased chemicals of interest and raw material diversification projects. In all these roles, interacting with the business side was natural because of the industrial setting. Right from the get-go, we had to justify the business aptitude of our R&D project. I spend about 80-90% of my time on research and 10-20% on the business side.

What Kinds of Transferable Skills Did You Take from Academia to Industry?

The transferable skills I took from academia to industry are embracing diversity, teamwork, critical thinking, effective communication of complex material and cutting-edge knowledge in the scientific field of interest I was hired for.

How Is Working in Industry Different from Academia?

Fundamentally, it’s the difference between basic research for long-term knowledge building and cracking “tough nuts” versus the shorter-term objective of industry to reduce this knowledge into salable products. The entry to industry from academia was an interesting journey and it took effort to adjust to the way projects and deliverables are set, the need to follow predefined safety and HR processes and protocols, documentation and IP protection, hierarchy of decision making, time spending on non-direct project related corporate meetings, etc. I learned a lot of these skills on the job.

What Kinds of Skills Do You Need to Excel in Industry?

You need to be able to work in diverse teams, have good time and task management skills and be able to motivate colleagues in your immediate circle. Also, having patience will help when projects reach a commercial dead end and have to be terminated despite the technical feasibility. At the same time, you want to have curiosity to always think of the next product to work on. You’ll need to learn to live through the cycles of product development and not to get too attached.

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Author: Navanietha Rathinam, Ph.D.

Navanietha Rathinam, Ph.D.
Dr. Navanietha Rathinam is a research scientist in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.