Career paths are not always straightforward. Choosing a scientific vocation can involve challenging and unanticipated decisions, often with no tour guide to follow. Some scientists may hop from the lab bench into industry while others progress up the academic research ladder. Others decide to leave research behind and explore science communication, teaching, setting up their own business or working in technical roles outside of the lab.
While a love of science can lead to varied and fulfilling careers, it may be lonely trying to evaluate the next step to take. Recently, initiatives such as “This is what a scientist looks like” and the #IamScience discussions, have shone a bright light on scientific career trajectories. In our latest Soapbox Science series, we focus on some interesting examples of scientific career transitions. We will hear from different contributors, all of whom use their scientific background in their current jobs, asking each of them the same questions: how did you decide on your career path, what are your motivations, and what does the future hold?
In this post Dr Ed Marshall talks about his transition from chemistry lecturer to founder of his own company.
Dr Ed Marshall is Director of Research and Founder, Plaxica Ltd. With more than 50 academic papers and patents to his name, Ed Marshall was formerly a lecturer in the department of Chemistry, Imperial College London before co-founding Plaxica in 2009. A major focus of his research has been the development of new catalysts for the synthesis of polymers from green sources. He was also previously the Director of Imperial’s Master’s degree in Green Chemistry: Energy and the Environment.
Director of Research and Founder, Plaxica Ltd
What is your scientific background?
My PhD studies with Prof. Jim Feast at Durham University focussed on polymer chemistry, but I was actually based in Prof Vernon Gibson’s catalytic chemistry lab. While I was busy producing white or cream coloured powders, the inorganic catalytic chemists around me were producing beautiful coloured crystals and liquids; I’m prepared to admit to jealously! When I left Durham in 1993 I chose to post-doc with an Italian inorganic chemist, Prof Carlo Floriani, in Lausanne and happily thought that I’d left my polymer days behind me. Unsurprisingly, when I arrived in Switzerland Carlo immediately asked me to work on another polymer-based project. This helped me realise that a skill set in both catalysis and polymers was actually quite attractive to employers.
After Switzerland, I spent two years working as a volunteer with VSO (a UK-based charity) teaching A-level students in Ghana, West Africa. This experience convinced me of the importance of sustainable development and I would like to think that the theme of sustainability has stayed with me throughout my career.
When I returned to the UK in 1999 I rejoined Vernon’s group, now at Imperial College London, where I resumed my research into metal-based polymerisation catalysts. We looked at a number of different plastics and in 2001 began to look at polylactic acid, PLA, a renewable plastic made from e.g. starch or sugar. I was appointed to a lectureship at Imperial in 2005.
What is your current job?
In 2008 I met Dr John Hamlin, a former senior manager at BP Chemicals, who at the time was employed by Imperial Innovations (the technology transfer arm of Imperial College) and tasked with talking to academics about the commercial promise of their research. Vernon and I had talked about starting a company for many years, but John’s input provided the impetus and drive to do so. In 2009 we launched Plaxica, a start-up focussed on improving the properties of PLA and on reducing its manufacturing cost.
“I found the challenge of converting academic research into a tangible industrial process to be more exciting and far more difficult than anything I’d ever done in University…”
With John as our CEO and Philip Holbeche (ex Ceres Power) as our Chairman, we raised funding for Plaxica and moved into an Incubator on Imperial’s South Kensington Campus. I found the challenge of converting academic research into a tangible industrial process to be more exciting and far more difficult than anything I’d ever done in University and at the end of 2009 I resigned my lectureship and joined Plaxica full-time. Three years on, we now employ more than 20 people, have two sites (the second is in Wilton in the North-East of England), have raised almost £10million in funding and are about to start building a pilot plant – all based on work we started in an academic lab.
I’m still very proud of my academic work but I have never regretted my decision to leave. I know there are academics who juggle both jobs – I admire them greatly but know that personally I could not devote sufficient time to either role well.
My role as Director of Research is hugely enjoyable. In particular, I have to balance the R&D management and ideas generation with commercial aspects of the Company too. Unlike academia however, I do not do this alone; Plaxica has a first rate management team, and a terrific team of scientists and engineers.
The job is difficult and arduous – I typically work a minimum of 12 hour days and, though based in London, I travel to Wilton at least once a week as we have researchers on both sites. We have numerous teleconferences and Skype calls to make sure that communication is strong, but nothing beats meeting in person. I try to work from home one day a month to recover from the travelling (I commute to London from just outside Cambridge) and I make sure that I never work at weekends unless absolutely unavoidable. My wife has been tremendously supportive – without her encouragement I simply wouldn’t have had the nerve to leave academia.
Where do you see your career in the future?
“I don’t think I’d ever be able to leave research behind: the challenges, the need to keep coming up with ideas and the problem-solving aspects of scientific research are simply too attractive.”
My plan is to remain with Plaxica for the foreseeable future – certainly while I am learning so much (e.g. biotechnology, chemical engineering, plant operations, industry regulations, commercial negotiations etc), I cannot imagine a reason to look elsewhere.
As for my next role, although I don’t regret my decision to leave academia I wouldn’t rule out a return to it at a later date – if the challenge was sufficiently interesting I would consider any role. However, I feel my future lies in the private sector; on reflection I think I was actually quite lonely in an academic role. I don’t think I’d ever be able to leave research behind: the challenges, the need to keep coming up with ideas and the problem-solving aspects of scientific research are simply too attractive.
Do you have any advice to other scientists considering a career in your area?
The personal sacrifices are not small, but the rewards and challenges make up for it.
For any academics thinking of starting up a company, I’d ask them to seek advice from someone who has already done it. The personal sacrifices are not small, but the rewards and challenges make up for it. Whether you remain in academia or not, make sure that your company has a good, experienced management team. As an academic, ask yourself what you really know about running a business, and then find someone who actually knows to run it for you!