August 2010

Member Spotlight


Anthony S. Serianni 

Professor, University of Notre Dame
President and CEO, Omicron Biochemicals Inc. 

How long have you been an ASBMB member?
For more than 15 years.

What do you study?
I am a structural glycobiologist. I am interested in developing new NMR-based tools to investigate the structures of simple and complex carbohydrates in solution. We aim to apply these new tools to improve our understanding of the chemical and biochemical properties of saccharides.

Why did you go into industry?
I co-founded Omicron Biochemicals Inc. in 1982, a few months before I accepted a faculty position at the University of Notre Dame. The company was started because, during my graduate studies at Michigan State University, we had developed new chemical methods to introduce stable isotopes site-specifically into saccharides that allowed access to a much greater array of labeled sugars than was accessible previously. This improved capability led to a number of requests for labeled compounds from the research community. As I was intent on pursuing an academic research career, I solved the problem by starting a small company during my postdoctoral stay at Cornell University to satisfy the needs of the research community, thinking at the time that this company would last perhaps three to five years. The company still is in operation 28 years later.

How do you feel ASBMB could best help scientists in industry?
By supporting basic discovery in the life sciences through which new applied technologies will be born. ASBMB should be a home for, and an advocate of, the discovery of core scientific knowledge. It should embrace fundamental inquiry as the agent that spurs new practical solutions. Industrial scientists need access to new, radical ideas and findings on a continuing basis to develop new ways to solve contemporary problems. Industrial scientists frequently do not have the time or money to pursue basic research – they largely are product-driven and thus depend on the academic community in great measure to supply the fundamental knowledge from which practical solutions can be developed.

Where do you see research in industry going in five to 10 years?
I know better than to predict the future. But, we are experiencing a time of significant change in both academic and industrial research. There is not enough space here to explain why this is occurring, but one factor is that the public is becoming more aware of the fact that, after more than 60 years of relatively generous federal research funding in the U.S., there still are major deficiencies in our ability to solve old and persistent problems, especially in the health-related areas. This partly may explain the shift in academic scientific research to solving practical, real-world problems. It is hard to say how long this trend will continue. In due course, however, a proper balance between basic and applied research needs to be struck, otherwise the discovery of fundamental, disruptive technologies that change the course of research, and our world, could be compromised. We need liberal minds thinking about lofty problems and people solving current problems with current technologies. Applied science without its basic research partner to support, stimulate and nourish it, is a formula for mediocrity and stagnation in the long term.

Has the downturn in the economy affected your job or your company?
As my main job is as a professor at the University of Notre Dame, the downturn has had a minimal impact, apart from perhaps reducing my pay raises in recent years! Federal research funding for academic research also has become more challenging in recent years. At Omicron, we largely have been immune to past economic downturns, which largely were limited to the U.S. This is because our clients are worldwide, and we are not dependent on U.S. clients for a large percentage of our sales. In the recent downturn, however, being global in nature, the situation may be different, especially if the downturn persists. Over the past 12-18 months, the effect has been small. What happens over the coming 12-18 months will depend on how well the global economy recovers, and how well governments, foundations and the private sector are willing or able to invest in chemical and biological research. 

Do you think your academic training prepared you for working in industry?
Only partly so. I was trained to think about scientific research in a very personal way. That is, fundamental research was paramount. As long as the work had a strong focus, addressed core questions, had realistic long-term objectives and was rigorous, then it did not matter whether it had an immediate application. In fact, this research philosophy led to the core discoveries that gave rise to Omicron. We were not looking to start a company; instead, as a result of basic, curiosity-driven study, we uncovered procedures that represented, at that time, disruptive technology with regard to saccharide labeling. In the business world, however, serving the needs of the client is paramount, thus fundamental research must be balanced with solving practical problems. Making money is the end-game in business, if your aim is to sustain a business over the long term. I had to learn this lesson and abide by these rules when operating Omicron.

How do you think research in academia differs most from research in industry?
The answer to this question depends on the historical time frame, and on the specific environments in academia and industry under scrutiny. I perceive academic research, perhaps naively so, as a venue for pursuing new and risky ideas, a place where researchers are not fettered by the need to generate a saleable product in the short term for public consumption and revenue generation, as is the case in most industrial settings. It is a privilege to be able to work in such a manner, that is, to be sustained largely by taxpayers and/or private citizens to study problems of no immediate or obvious commercial worth. Such scientists assume a great deal of personal and social responsibility to make good on the funds given to support them and not to waste the money or the opportunity.

Nowadays basic, curiosity-driven scientific research is yielding ground in academic environments to engineering solutions to world problems. This shift is healthy, in that too much basic research can lead to research becoming an end in itself rather than a means to improving the world in which we live. However, it is important to appreciate that some scientists are better at conducting basic research and others are better at pursuing applied research, and I am not convinced that you can force one to become the other. It is important that both research niches be encouraged and supported financially, because both need each other to produce a robust and productive research enterprise.

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