The majority of basic medical research labs in universities and non-profit research institutes share one common goal: the noble pursuit of knowledge, seeking to expand our understanding of diseases and afflictions of the body and mind. Research is vigilantly pursued with the goal of publishing any findings, thereby sharing it with other researchers, hoping to ultimately discover the cause and, by association, a cure. While these laboratories serve a valuable purpose in their fields, they are not independently able to draw in monies and so rely heavily upon government and private foundation funding. The current funding for these laboratories, however, is becoming rare. The funding rate of the National Institute of Health (NIH) this year is less than 10%, making industrial funds the most significant part of research and development funding.1 In order to support their research, many laboratories have had to diversify their efforts to include commercial research and application, changing the structure of the lab and its ultimate purpose. These hybrid labs have merged with a business world where they seek to patent and market their research while they continue to apply for grant funding, a rather “schizophrenic” approach and the newest trend.
The training of most Principle Investigators (PIs) is solely focused on science rather than organizational behavior. When these PIs find themselves thrust into the managerial role in a business sense, the hybrid lab can be easily mismanaged and the members left confused and frustrated. With low lab morale, there comes high member turnover, inefficiency, and low productivity, and the lab quickly flounders in a business world where it has no experience. In order for the hybrid model to succeed, it is imperative that the PI be able to construct and communicate a clear, well-defined vision.
Define a clear vision
One of the most confusing aspects in a hybrid laboratory is the ultimate goal of the organization. I once heard a graduate student in a lab I worked in ask simply, “Are we here to make a product in science or to make a difference in science?” The answer, not so simple, is “both.” The real problem with these models is finding the balance between what is academically notable and what is marketable. The mission of a hybrid laboratory might seem contradictory with this schizophrenic approach and would likely cause confusion and frustration among the lab members. It is important that they get published, but they must also focus on turning a profit. The fatal mistake for several of these types of labs is the PI’s changing of the scheme from one to the other and back again. For example, if a PI’s training is in science, he would push for publication of research, telling the lab members to write more, stretching out of the market realm. Then, realizing that the commercial side is neglected, he would refocus the lab’s efforts on product, reigning in the members’ enthusiastic research into the unknown. Then, again, feel the pull of the academic when the possibilities begin to imply more than what their product is really aiming for, exciting the PI into further research areas. This constant shifting results in a loss of excitement for a project that may be dropped or changed in the course of a week, a weakening of dedication towards the lab as a whole, and a lack of respect and trust for the PI.
In order to avoid these pitfalls, the PI must define a clear, confident vision for the lab to follow and stick to it. This vision should meld the academic and commercial aspects together in the beginning, thereby eliminating the prospect of see-sawing the balance. If done properly, the PI’s vision creates the image of what is possible and desirable for the lab, lending great power to create meaning, challenge, and energy within the hybrid lab.2 It urges actions, shapes actions, and allows the value of actions to be satisfied. Each experiment and publication should fit within the scope of the vision, even if this means foregoing a potential lead into something academically stimulating in favor of the plan. This vision should be defined by three significant characteristics: achievability, relevance, and prospective.
It is imperative — and cannot be stressed enough — that the vision be based in reality, not idealism. This is an important distinction between the vision for a purely academic lab and a hybrid lab. In the world of education, it is acceptable and common to strive toward the dream. For example, a lab may be dedicated to eliminating cancer. This is a noble pursuit to be sure, but when applied toward the commercial world, it is seen as a delusion of grandeur. The members in such a lab may find themselves working tirelessly for what seems like an immeasurable time with little tangible result. They become hopeless and the lab morale becomes low. They no longer take the work seriously. The PI of this hybrid lab must concede to a more short-term, foreseeable goal, such as finding a better treatment for breast cancer or, even stretching a bit, finding a drug to cure breast cancer. This vision could not only attract companies to fund the very marketable research, but it is also worthy of government notice and support. The steps are easily outlined and yield faster and more solid results for the lab members to see and be proud of as well as be excited about. The lab’s productivity becomes noticeable. The proper attitude in a lab is a key element to success, and the vision is responsible for bringing it out.
College basketball coach Rick Pitino was quoted as saying “People like to be a part of something, something greater than themselves.” This is every bit as true in a business arena as it is in sports. It is the PI’s goal to provide a vision that satisfies this need for the lab members. His vision needs to create meaning for the members, motivating them through the importance of their contribution to the project and ultimately the success of the lab. Every member of the lab should feel proud to be part of the process, regardless of the responsibility they fulfilled, from the physical production of a drug to washing of the lab ware. Never should there be a member of the lab who feels unneeded.
This goal is accomplished by simply, yet concisely, communicating the vision. Your lab members cannot possibly feel like an important part of the whole without knowing what that “whole” is. This may sound easy enough and even a bit obvious, but this part of the process is often mishandled or overlooked. It is understandable when we consider that, in an academic lab, the members are students and post-docs who 1) are still training and may not really understand every step in the whole picture, and 2) are not there for the “long term” as they will graduate and move on. In a hybrid lab, however, we must reassess the situation. This is a business now, and each department in a business needs to know where they’re going. If they don’t, how can they possibly get there? It’s like being told to get somewhere without being able to see the map. If you are traveling for days and still see no sign of your destination, would you continue?
Once the vision is communicated to your members, everyone should feel like a part of that “something greater.” Each should see the importance of each task. No longer is someone just washing the lab ware. Rather, they are washing the lab ware so that their lab can find the cure for Alzheimer’s. The difference is huge.
A PI for a hybrid lab must take inventory of where the lab is now in order to design the vision for the future. Prospect is important in constructing a workable route toward the end goal. Remember, your lab members have been completely embroiled in either the academic or commercial world where individuals carry on their own projects rather than making a real team effort. Becoming a hybrid is going to bring changes for everyone and it will take some extra time and effort to make those changes. A good vision should make this transition step by step to avoid as much confusion and disruption as possible for your lab. However, these changes must be made. Your vision should impress the importance of these changes for the success of the lab team as a whole.
It is crucial to understand that a vision is not made for “today.” A vision is where you want to be in the future. The PI must be able to look ahead at the possibilities that may affect the vision of the lab, bridging the gap between the dream of today and the reality of tomorrow. There must be more than one route to take on the chance that one may become blocked. For example, a lab’s vision should not rely completely on obtaining a certain grant. If that grant is not awarded, an alternate route should already be ready for implementation. The commercial market fluctuates. Grant funding changes. Competition arises. All of these possibilities and more should be considered when mapping out a vision. The future will happen. The PI’s job is to plan for it in a way that makes sure the hybrid lab keeps up with it.
A hybrid laboratory is a pressure cooker, under constant stress from the academic world as well as the commercial world. Its success relies on its proper management. Defining and communicating a clear vision is imperative in order for the PI to lead the lab and its members effectively around the pitfalls that plague this new type of lab. The combination of the two worlds, academic and commercial, has become necessary. With the right vision, it can become extraordinary.
Next installment: Building the Vision
- Ernst S. "Industrial investment fuels R&D spending." Bioscience Technology 2007, February 1.
- Nanus B. Visionary Leadership. Jossey-Bass, 1992.