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From consultancy and industry contacts to more powerful materials modelling software, an EPSRC Knowledge Transfer Fellowship between the Department of Chemistry and BIOVIA has brought benefits to both – and revealed some fascinating cultural differences between industry and academia.

In 2016, Dr Judith Rommel used an EPSRC Knowledge Transfer Fellowship to spend a year working between the Department of Chemistry and BIOVIA, one of Europe’s leading 3D software design companies. Her aim was to use the University’s expertise in molecular modelling to help make BIOVIA’s software even more powerful. Thirteen months later, she says the Fellowship taught her as much about bridging the cultural gap between academia and the commercial world as about materials modelling tools.

The story began at a conference in London, where Rommel met one of BIOVIA’s R&D engineers. “I thought it would be cool to know people in software design, not least because it might help me set up a company to commercialise my own research,” she recalls. “Then I hit on the question ‘who are the customers – and what kind of market is out there?’ That’s why I wanted to be more exposed to industry, their customers and the challenges they face.”

BIOVIA’s customers include some of the world’s biggest businesses – from Pfizer and Sanofi to Unilever and Shell – many of whom rely on BIOVIA’s materials modelling software to engineer better performing pharmaceuticals, catalysts, polymers and fuel cells. Not surprisingly the software is complex, but believing her expertise could help strengthen BIOVIA’s software, Rommel looked for ways to make it happen.

“I found about the EPSRC Knowledge Transfer Fellowship through an email. Chemistry has a super helpful knowledge transfer facilitator in the Department, and she gave me lots of support to prepare the application. The fellowships also depend on the involvement of a senior researcher, so Professor David Wales and I applied together and were successful,” she says.

Before she arrived at BIOVIA, however, Rommel realised that getting two highly complex, yet compatible, software systems to work together was only half the problem. Before she could begin to tackle the science, she needed to overcome the legal and cultural challenges, and it took five months to draw up the necessary legal agreements.

“It was the first time somebody had been seconded to BIOVIA who was not paid by them, which was challenging,” she explains. “It was new to me too, so I learned a lot about the legal side of things and the major differences between a commercial business and the University. Because I also had a travel grant at the time, it meant I could go to conferences and talk to potential customers. It was an excellent opportunity to discover the real-world challenges people face in simulating chemical systems,” says Rommel. “But academics work differently and industry struggled with my irregularity from time to time, so setting expectations earlier would have been a good idea.”

Working through the challenges has led to reciprocal rewards – for Rommel and the University as well as for BIOVIA. The company has benefited by using algorithms developed at the University to enhance its software, giving BIOVIA a potential edge in a highly competitive – and valuable – market. “It was about combining our capabilities; it was a synergy,” Wales explains. “BIOVIA had a very good package for describing molecules and we have very good software for understanding how these molecules behave. Getting these two powerful tools to work together – a non-trivial problem – was the aim of the exercise.”

The University and BIOVIA have used the Knowledge Transfer Fellowship to build a productive, ongoing relationship, with a new consultancy agreement in the pipeline. And for Rommel, the rewards are numerous – and ongoing.

While leaving Cambridge, she is debating her next career move. Starting her own company remains an attractive option, but she’s also considering professorships in applied maths in a German university, quantum materials engineering or a leadership role. “Because of my background a lot is possible, and I have lots of interviews,” she concludes. “The Knowledge Transfer Fellowship was hugely important. It gave me a year to experience working in industry. And the contacts I made, not only at BIOVIA but among its customers and in the European Union, are very valuable.”