Nobel & Nobel – out of the ivory tower

Frances Arnold (Nobel Prize for Chemistry 2018 for the directed evolution of enzymes) and Jennifer Doudna (Nobel Prize for Chemistry 2020 for the invention of CRISPR)

They are two of only seven women who have won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. At the Spark 2021 conference, they chatted about ethics, being women in science, the future of research, and much more. Frances Arnold was the interviewer and Jennifer Doudna the interviewee. The following is an extract of their conversation, dealing with the challenge of starting companies while running a top academic lab.

Jennifer Doudna: One of the things that have been so interesting and kind of unexpected for me about CRISPR has been the opportunity to be involved in start-up companies, you know biotech companies that are developing technologies for particular applications, something I had not done before CRISPR came along for me. And something I have never told you actually is that you are probably the most important mentor that I have had with regard to being a company founder.

When I first got to know you through our meeting at Packard Foundation, we talked a lot about companies and you told me a lot about your work with a series of companies you have been involved in. I was so impressed with your ability to manage a fundamental academic research laboratory but also to be thinking always where is the science going, how can I have a broader, bigger impact. In many cases that happens through companies.

Frances Arnold: I always like to tell my students it’s not useful until someone uses it and we find that the way to get people to use it is to provide it in a form that is usable and companies do that so well and who better to drive that than the people, the young people who work so hard to make these things happen. So tell me, you have kind of surpassed what I ever did now, what are you up, at 7 companies that you co-founded? How do you do this?

Jennifer Doudna: You know, it often happens organically, through people that are working in the laboratory who have an idea and they realize for that idea to really have an impact they need to develop it in a context where they can attract investors and can build a larger team and have a focus on a particular idea, and that can be so exciting, you know. There is something wonderful about seeing young scientists get engaged that way and have an idea they really are passionate to work at.

And it’s true in academia too, but in the start-ups I have been involved in, many of them have been founded by former lab members of mine and the three in particular that I’m thinking of right now are three that are all led by former students of mine and that is a real joy to see people who came to your laboratory to learn about doing science and you worked together for a few years and you see them blossoming, and leading a team, and raising money. and building products, and really advancing technology in ways that go far beyond anything they could have done in my academic lab. This is really something I feel proud of.

Frances Arnold: Well, some ivory-tower scientists might complain a bit over the focus on forming companies. Do you run into that at all?

Jennifer Doudna: Not really, no, I haven’t, maybe they are grumbling behind my back, it’s possible. But I’ve been running my research lab for 27 years and during that period of time the vast majority of trainees who came from my laboratory are running academic labs actually, and many of them are tenured professors, highly successful, I feel very very proud of what those folks are doing but equally, I feel delighted when students say Jennifer, I feel a passion to develop this idea in ways that probably make more sense in a company than in an academic laboratory. I really see them as just two different forks in the path and I think increasingly people can get back and forth between companies and academics.

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