August 2010

Industry-Academia Partnerships

“Now, it’s not all backslapping,” Sheng continues. “Wells also is a great scientist with strong industry experience and a proven record in finding small molecule drugs. Together, everything converged at just the right historical, geographical and situational nexus to make a bold plan possible.”

It also was helpful that the protagonists involved didn’t have a language barrier; besides Wells’ extensive industry background, Sheng only came to Genentech two years ago, following a long tenure at Harvard Medical School and MIT.

“The mobility between academia and industry has been steadily increasing, which is why I think we’ll see more of this interplay in the future,” Sheng says. “If you’re a former academic at a management position in industry you’re prone to collaborate with academics, since you’re familiar with them.”

“And, that’s a positive development, because the two groups need each other,” Sheng continues. “Even though companies spend billions on R&D, that only contributes to a small percentage of total scientific discoveries. Working closely with academia is vital to help drive science forward.”

Assuming, of course, that this endeavor doesn’t fail, which always looms as a possibility. “It’s kind of like the early days of flying machines,” Arkin says. “Eventually, one design is going to revolutionize the field, but, before that, many others failed to get off the ground.”

However, things are proceeding well for this partnership, and Wells notes that both sides expressed great excitement at the last project meeting over the progress that had been made, so, perhaps UCSF and Genentech could be the Orville and Wilbur Wright of scientific collaboration.

Nick Zagorski ( is a science writer at ASBMB.

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