Stefan Sipika, who is the Lab Production and Process Manager at biotechnology company, Aptamer Group, is the subject of today’s episode of What Do You Actually Do!?
You’re listening to the What Do You Actually Do!? Podcast. Each week, we want to bring you an inspiring interview, a useful tip, or encouraging message to help you find your place in the professional world. Hello and welcome to this episode of What Do You Actually Do!? My name is Kate Morris and I’ll be your host today. In today’s episode we’ll be talking about working in the biotechnology sector. We’re joined by Stefan Sipika who works at the Aptamer Group as their Process and Production Manager.
K: So Stefan, what do you actually do?
S: That’s a large question. The Aptamer Group is just a relatively small company, we’re about twenty, twenty-five people at this point and my primary job is managing the flow of work through the lab so when customers come in I write the plan for them, give it to the lab team, manage the lab team, manage the project going out. I do other things as well so people management stuff like that, setting KPIs, I do a bit of science here and there, so I mainly do kinetics experiments, things like that…
K: So when you say you work with the clients, are you sort of identifying what it is that they want to achieve…
S: We go through a process… the sales guys will contact the customer, work out what they want and then they’ll bring me in to plan the workflow.
K: So how it’s actually going to happen…
S: They hand it off to me, I look after the customer all the way to the end and then I kinda hand it back to the sales guys for the further work…
K: Can you tell us a bit more about what…
S: You wanna know what an aptamer is…
K: Yea… Talk me through it!
S: So an aptamer is a chain of oligonucleotides that we kind of use like Lego. So everything in the world, every biological entity will interact with another one in a different way. What we can do is we throw a random DNA or RNA sequences, stuff that makes you, at a target – so protein or a small molecule like aspirin or something like that and see what sticks to it! And after we use iterations of Darwinian evolution – so we expose something that targets to the library, wash up all the stuff that doesn’t stick, take that stuff off and make more of it. Eventually you thin down this massive random pool to a specific aptamer.
K: And why would you like to do that?
S: To recognise things, by-markers, it all depends on the customer’s requirements. We make sensors, markers, we can inhibit things… anything that recognises something is useful. Take for example cancer, a particular strain of cancer will have different marks in the cancer cells. If we can find one, it means we can identify it, if we can see it it means we can target it, and if you can target it, it’s much easier than subjecting someone to eight to ten months of chemo or something like that.
K: That’s amazing! So who would your clients be then – what type of people or organisations would contact you?
S: We have customers from small universities, to big pharmaceutical companies.
K: So what would you say are the key elements of your role? You’ve given a bit of an insight there, liaising between the two different parties and seeing a project through. But in terms of practical stuff you’re actually doing?
S: I suppose the stuff I do on a day-to-day basis is the report-writing, communication with people, so that everyone knows what they’re doing. Also communication with the management, sales team, the lab team… and yeah the skills I’ve picked up throughout my career. I lean a lot more into regulatory side of things as opposed to the RND side of things.
K: Do you need to be an actual scientist to do your kind of role? I imagine it’s helpful… I don’t mean that disrespectfully but it sounds like you’re not really sitting there with a test-tube… or are you?
S: I do at times. So when I left university I went on to do a lab role. I got more into the regulatory side of things and started doing more with automation. And then when it came to Aptamer Group, there was a niche there where their processes needed regulating so that’s what I did as I had experience in it. It’s kind of a mixture of a QA officer, which doesn’t need to be a scientist, but having that background helps you understand how you can fix things because routinely people will come in and say “what do you think we should do with this? It’s giving us a weird result – what do we need to do?” and you have to understand it to be able to answer those questions.
K: So where did your interest on the biotech sector come from? Because you did biology as your degree…
S: I did. Yes, at the University of York, and I didn’t do particularly well… You know, I’m not sure my supervisor is here anymore and I’m sure he could attest that I didn’t do particularly well for a variety of reasons. But when I left I got a job over in Harrogate at a research organisation as a low-level lab tech guy and that kind of exposed me to the industry in a way that you haven’t really heard about, I mean coming through academia you hear a lot about academia but not the wider things. Everyone knows about big drug companies, but nobody knows what they do. And working for a research organisation like that taught me a lot of skills that I didn’t have such as dealing with customers, analysing data, making sure it was fine first time… And that’s why I don’t have that curiosity that a lot of scientists tend to have but it’s helped me a lot in the way in which I can focus in results and I can analyse things from a step back rather than get lost in the middle of it. And you learn about the biotech industry, different approaches that companies take, and when I reached the end of my time there I realised that I didn’t want to be part of a big organisation anymore so that’s why looking somewhere like Aptamer Group just cropped up and I took a risk going from a huge company down to a small one. But it’s paid off in ways I wouldn’t even have thought possible and I find myself now in a position I never thought I’d be when I left university, really. I always thought I’d be in a lab for the rest of my time, I never really thought that I’d end up managing people. But I have done because it turns out that the skills that I learnt along the way, that continuous development have got me to a point where I can find into a position that I never thought I could do. And the skills as well that I learnt at University – admittedly my biology wasn’t particularly good – but dealing with people, interpersonal skills, I’m absolutely convinced that got me my first job, being happy to learn, being open to saying “I don’t actually know a lot, teach me and I will”.
K: So it sounds like for you, your experiences have been really impactful in helping you clarify what you’re best at and what you feel you enjoy doing the most rather than having a set plan of what you want to do…
S: Yes, I didn’t have a plan, which sounds terrible, and I’m sure my mum criticised me at the time for it but in reality a lot of the time you can make a plan but if you stick too hard to it, it can fall through…
K: Yeah, I think that can be the downside. I’ve met a lot of students where they’ve had a fixed idea on something, and then it’s even not happened or it’s happened but the reality hasn’t matched their expectations, and they’ve never thought of anything else. So having that adaptability can be a really good thing. But I think perhaps you’re underselling the self-evaluation that you’ve been doing to recognise what you’re good at and move from there…
S: Possibly. I think there’s the term in the industry “continuous professional development” and it is continuous and it comes from the most unlikely sources. My experience doing a podcast with my friend, for example, taught me how to talk to people; sitting in on meetings; jumping at every opportunity that’s presented to me… You’ve got to throw yourself head first into different experiences, because you can have the tendency to sit back and rest on your laurels. And if you find something that you like, great, but it’s not going to get you the next thing. What I’m trying to encourage my staff to do as well is sort of right, you’re here, this is what we’re looking at now for you. Key performance indicators. But, what do you want to do next? What drives you, what are you interested in? Find something that you’re passionate about and just pursue it relentlessly, because that’s the only way that you’re going to grow. And you might find that in ten years you’re nowhere near where you thought you’d be, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I always thought I was going to work in a lab until the day I retired, but now I hate working in the lab. It just sucks up my time, because what I really like, what I’m passionate about, is delivering things to my customers and knowing that we’ve done a good job, that the company is doing a good job, because of my work and my team’s work, the companies work, and that opens up opportunities.
K: So, what do you think are gonna be the key challenges for the sector moving forwards? For students, or people wanting to break into the sector, what do they need to know? What’s on the horizon?
S: Specifically in this country, Brexit, which is always going to be a problem until we actually know what’s going to happen, especially with funding. A lot of funding comes from the EU. It’s not necessarily a massive issue for larger companies, but for small companies that rely on that drip feed of money, and they don’t have external customers, it can be a concern. I think, in terms of technology that’s coming up, I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but when you patent a drug, the patent only lasts a certain amount of time, and then you can make a biosimilar, which is something that is kind of like it but made in a different way. And that’s a massive industry now because things are coming along that will be similar to other drugs, and there is a fall away from R&D towards things to this kind of stable work that comes from making something that is similar and a competitor to paracetamol or something like that.
K: So, it’s like doing a cheap cover of a really good pop song?
S: Kind of, but with the hope that you’d undercut the competition and make more money. Considering that trying to get a drug to market is wildly expensive, we’re talking 10 years’ worth of work and probably £10 million.
K: So it’s sort of, in terms of money, it’s an easier win to copy an already proven successful drug rather than invest in trying to develop new ideas?
S: Yes. The other thing that is a challenge for the industry is regulation and it’s always going to be, because there’s a – I can’t remember who gave the quote – but, technology moves fast but regulation moves slow. So, I mean, it’s only in the last couple of years that the FDA and the NHRA, which are the regulatory authorities around the world, have kind of listed digital audit trails, software that people have used for years, they now actually have regulations for. So, a lot of the industry is kind of playing catch up very rapidly. It’s especially caught some of our customers out as well. You know, they need certain things from us that they just weren’t prepared for. And, it’s kind of, the more regulations that come in, the more money you have to spend, the longer things take, and the process just gets longer. But, counter to that, to plug my own company, the great thing about aptamers is that you don’t have to worry about a lot of the issues that come with making antibodies, we don’t make life cells, they can be made externally, synthetically, with no issues, so you don’t have to worry about that side of the regulations.
K: Is AI and the kind of development of AI, going to have an impact on the biotech sector?
S: Potentially. I mean, the automation is always going to be a big thing in the industry, because if you can get a robot or a programme to do something that a person does, you save costs and they can work 24/7 with no breaks. You always need a person there to programme them, but you don’t need a team of seven, for example. The more technology goes into that, the less, I suppose, human work is needed on certain things. But I think automation is kind of a, people always see it was a way to replace jobs rather than a tool to help.
K: So potentially more of a tool to help, in your sector?
S: Definitely, it’s never going to replace an analyst looking at data, for example, because you need to be able to interpret it, but it certainly helps an analyst do their job. And the more work we can plug into automation, the more consistent things will be, just through the nature of using robots.
K: So, any final words of advice for someone wanting to break into the biotech sector, or into sort of, process and production management in particular as a career?
S: I think, in terms of getting in the biotech sector, it’s just learning, like a said earlier. Learn as much as you can and throw yourself at certain situations, because if you don’t open yourself up to them you’ll never find the opportunities you think you will. There’s a tendency, especially in my experience with scientists, to almost stagnate. Like, they’ve got to a position and that’s it and that’s what they’re doing. But it doesn’t move them on. And I think, yeah, someone trying to get into the industry should always be looking for the next available thing, and recommending it to someone and saying ‘hey, you haven’t tried this. Do you want to try this?” In terms of process and production and management, again, management skills are always useful. I personally have never been formally trained with a management degree or anything like that, but I’ve done external training and again that comes from volunteering for things.
K: So it sounds like taking opportunities, not always doing the most obvious stuff, getting a bit of a variety of experience?
S: Yes. The more well-rounded a person you are, the easier it is going to be to find a job, as a general rule. I suppose, as well, it will help you in interviews, it will help you grow as a person and learn what you’re looking for and what you want to do at the end of the day.
K: Wow, that’s fantastic advice, thank you very much for that. We’ll put details of Aptamer’s website, and some bits and pieces about you on our website, and we’ve also got some resources for students who are interested in researching, breaking into different areas of science as a career, but thank you very much for giving your time up today, it’s much appreciated.
Thanks for joining us this week on What do you actually do? This episode was hosted by myself, Kate Morris, and edited by Stephen Furlong and produced by both of us.
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