Intellectual property and commercial research

Careers Intellectual Holding

Debra Smith – Intellectual property and commercial research

What is your current job title?

Intellectual Property and Commercial Research Manager.

What organisation do you work for?

Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust.

What qualifications do you have?

BSc (Hons) Microbiology from University of East Anglia, and a PhD in Molecular Microbiology from University of Cambridge.

What got you interested in microbiology?

I'd loved microbiology from school. I remember thinking that lichens were really cool, and I got to do a microbiology module for my A levels where I did a mini research project on kitchen cleaners and how effective they were at killing different microbes.

At UEA I started on the 'Biological Sciences with a deferred choice of specialisation', but given the fantastic microbiology research at UEA and the associated research institutions (John Innes Centre and Institute for Food Research) I was inspired to continue in the field pretty early on.

What is your present occupation - what is it you do?

There are two main parts to my job, but essentially I act as a bridge between researchers and clinicians and industry. One half of my role involves supporting innovation within the hospital, and helping to get our clinicians' brilliant ideas out to the market place, where they can really make a difference. This side of things is known as 'technology transfer' and in the Trust we've developed apps, training simulators, new medical devices, software and even some really techie innovations that are protected by patents. We licence the ideas (technically the Intellectual Property) to companies because they have the capacity to manufacture, market and sell the products, but the original inventor gets a share in the profits!

The other half of my role is to facilitate the commercial research that happens at the Trust. This is things like providing consultancy services to industry, or doing some lab analysis on samples from a new vaccine trial. This way, we're helping to ensure that new products (medical devices, vaccines, for example) that industry is bringing to the market are as good as they can be, while also generating income for the hospital departments.

Can you describe a typical working day?

My days are extremely varied! A typical day might start with an 'invention disclosure' where I meet with a member of staff who tells me about their really exciting new idea. It feels a bit like being a dragon on Dragon's Den – they bring along little sketches and prototypes, or take me onto the wards to meet a patient and show me how their idea can help. I'll then spend a while back in the office researching their innovation, seeing if there's anything like it already on the market, if there are any relevant patents, and thinking about how to develop their idea as well as researching which companies might eventually be interested in licensing it.

I'll be having discussions with my colleagues and responding to emails and calls about other projects while all this is going on, and then I might get a few hours to negotiate or review a contract for one of my other projects, like a consultancy. I have to make sure that the Trust's interests are protected such as how much we're getting paid, who will own the Intellectual Property and what would happen if there was a disagreement or problem.

The day might end with a conference call with a company to catch up on the progress of a particular project, and a chat to see if there are any other opportunities for us to work together.

What do you like most/least about your job?

I really love meeting with staff to hear about their brilliant ideas and then helping to turn these ideas into reality. One great asset we have is an association with product design students from Brunel University where we turn a clinician's idea into a project for a final year student. It's really rewarding for everyone, and at the end of the projects we organise an exhibition in the hospital, which is open to staff and patients and showcases all the exciting products that the students have developed.

I like to be busy at work, but the thing I like least about my job is that I don't have enough time to do everything! My to-do list is very long and I don't like having to keep people waiting!

What are the most important skills you need to do your job?

People skills, multi-tasking and an eye for detail for the contract work! Science-wise, I can be speaking to a cardiothoracic surgeon one day, then someone in IT, then an allergy nurse at the children's hospital, so you need to be a quick learner and have a good enough understanding of medicine to follow what they're talking about!

Is there anything you wish someone had told you about the job before you started?

Not specifically about the job, but about careers in general – I wish I'd known that careers evolve and it's perfectly normal to end up somewhere quite different to where you started out, because you can gradually make moves in the direction you want to go throughout your working life. I really enjoy what I do at the moment, but I'd love to think I can combine the skills I've learnt in this role with my microbiology background in the future, and maybe work for a biotech company as the bridge between the science and business.

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