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Industrial PhDs: real world research

April 23, 2019 | By Jeremy Georges-Filteau

The Hyve has hired me last year as their first full-time PhD candidate. This means I am registered with a university where I will defend my thesis, but all of my research is done in the company. This type of programme is often called an Industrial PhD and it is becoming increasingly popular as an alternative to traditional PhD training in academic research groups.

In this blog, I want to shed light on what such a program looks like, what benefits it can have when compared to traditional PhD training and I also want to briefly explain my own research at The Hyve.

 

Industrial PhDs


Industrial-PhD-iconThe number of PhD graduates has been rapidly increasing over the past decade, while the number of higher academic positions has remained fairly constant. This is a growing problem as currently only about a quarter of PhD graduates obtain positions in universities; others must necessarily find employment in non-academic sectors. However, the set of research skills PhD candidates develop in an academic setting are not always sufficient in a commercial setting. That’s one of the reasons why industrial PhDs are becoming increasingly popular.

 

Advantages and downsides for the PhD candidate

Industry and academia often have very different views about deadlines and scientific thoroughness. This imposes a different working pace. So you would expect frictions would arise when an academic conducts PhD research in a company. It generally works out differently. 
Industrial-PhD-Jeremy-The-HyvePast experience has shown that being integrated into the industrial sector fosters the development of complementary skills. These include technical/practical proficiency, critical judgement, communication, creativity, leadership, and an entrepreneurial mindset. Academic research skills are certainly not put aside, as a PhD candidate in a company has to respond to both academic standards and commercial pressures. That being said, this can also mean a higher workload and the stress of having to accommodate both.

PhD candidates hosted in a company usually appreciate the more practical scientific challenges they encounter. Let’s keep in mind though, that the goal of a PhD is to produce a novel contribution to science, not just practical problem solving. Here are a few of the pros and cons of an Industrial PhD:

  • Pros
    • Colleagues raise your awareness of industry trends and real-world problems
    • Research findings can much quicker be implemented in the real world
    • The chance to directly contribute to the success of a company
    • Easy and abundant access to empirical data
    • Benefit from the in-company knowledge of commercial networks
  • Cons
    • Few colleagues involved in the scientific research process
    • Company projects move at a much faster pace than your own

 

Benefits for the company

For the company hosting an Industrial PhD candidate, collaboration with an academic researcher provides them with the opportunity to expand the scope and quality of their research in a generally cost-effective way. Provided the research project of the PhD candidate is aligned with the needs and strategies of the company (which is usually the case). External funding should enable them to increase the company’s competitiveness and innovation capabilities by benefiting from a more long-term research project.
Nonetheless, new technologies or scientific insights are usually not the main motivation for companies to take in PhD candidates. Having an academic researcher on-site who is less constrained by daily company requirements and deadlines, can bring other advantages such as:

  • Encouraging out-of-the box thinking among other employees
  • Raising awareness about complementary competencies
  • Experience in applying research methods
  • Browsing the academic literature for information/knowledge useful to the company’s expertise

The-Hyve-office

 

The Hyve, AiPBAND and me

The-Hyve-logoSince July 2018, at The Hyve I am conducting research and development within the AiPBAND project, a European Training Network (ETN) funded by the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA). The mission of the project is to develop innovative methods for early diagnosis of glioma, a type of brain tumour, using molecular biomarkers in the blood. Fourteen Early Stage Researchers are involved in the project across Europe, investigating subjects such as: Identifying novel blood biomarkers; Designing three types of biosensors; Developing an intelligent data management infrastructure.

AiPBAND-MSCA-ITN-ETN-logoAs a fellow in the AiPBAND project, I am responsible for the development of a Cloud-based diagnostics system. As such, I will be investigating three main topics:
  • Solutions for scalable and high performance storage of clinical and omics data
  • The development of a flexible data integration and interoperability ecosystem
  • The promotion of patient engagement through a purposefully designed user interface.

 

On one hand, my research is bound to benefit from The Hyve's leading position in the open-source biomedical informatics industry. For example, The Hyve's in-house experts can help me align my research focus with real world needs, ensuring the significance and practical impact of the outcomes. On the other hand, as AiPBAND’s requirement for a Cloud-based diagnostic platform is uniquely suited to The Hyve’s software portfolio, my research findings can have long-term benefits for the company.

  • Industrial-PhD-Jeremy-The-Hyve-2In the first place, The Hyve has broad experience in providing and customizing data warehousing solutions for various data types, including phenotypic and omics data. The open-source platform tranSMART is such an example. However, The Hyve is keenly aware of the need to take these software solutions to the next level, making sure they can handle increasingly big datasets. My research within AiPBAND is directly aligned with this need. In fact, I am developing a benchmark based on real-world case studies to systematically evaluate and customize database software offerings for large clinical and omics data sets, while ensuring scalability, performance and security.
  • Secondly, The Hyve is often solving data curation and integration use cases for its clients. The goal is to present data in a useful unified form, from a large variety of formats. My research proposal includes the development of an open-source ecosystem of composable API endpoints and connectors interfacing through semantic web technologies such as the Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR).  Reusable components, to be assembled in various combinations, would allow for the rapid development of use-case centric integration solutions and enable developers to concentrate on integration logic. The output of this research could provide greater flexibility to The Hyve’s Glowing Bear, the user-interface designed to work with tranSMART 17.1, allowing it to interface with multiple data endpoints, in a variety of formats.

In conclusion, even though industry and academia often have different approaches, the collaboration can be beneficial to both. An Industrial PhD project is a long-term commitment and a multifaceted learning experience. It will not only produce novel scientific insights with high applicability to company needs, but also educate an expert in a field of strategic value to the company. If you are wondering whether an Industrial PhD might be the right choice for you, I would be more than happy to share my experience. So please, feel free to leave a question or comment below.