Stick to one field and focus if you want to be successful.
This was the message from Professor Leon Dicks, Distinguished Professor in Microbiology at Stellenbosch University, who has studied lactic acid bacteria for the past 40 years. He is also the inventor of the Entiro probiotic brand, developed through award-winning research, which has been commercialised by Cipla. It is now one of South Africa’s fastest growing and most prescribed probiotics, attracting a turnover of over R50 million yearly in the South African marketplace.
Although the antimicrobial and preservative properties of lactic acid bacteria have been known for a while, Dicks and his team were among the first in the world to use two of these specific bacteria, a patented strain combination of Lactobacillus plantarum and Enterococcus mundtii, to fight infections in both humans and animals.
Professor Dicks (above) told his story to public universities’ executive leadership at their two-day Executive Leadership Workshop (ELW) that was hosted by Universities South Africa’s Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme. He was speaking alongside another scientist on How to collaborate with industry partners for fast tracking commercialisation.
The purpose of the ELW is to increase the number of institutions positioned as entrepreneurial universities and provide an opportunity for deputy vice-chancellors in particular, as well as Executives and Leaders in Entrepreneurship development, to engage on entrepreneurship at universities, specifically as it relates to university strategy and policy.
This year’s event, the 4th edition of the annual ELW, that ended yesterday, was themed Commercialisation of Research. It was attended by deputy vice chancellors, executive and other senior leaders who influence policy decisions within their institutions. The ELW is sponsored by the British Council as part of its support to growing entrepreneurial universities in the South African ecosystem.
Entiro’s success story did not happen overnight. It all started in 2003, when Professor Dicks and his team began screening more than 5000 lactic acid bacteria strains for antimicrobial and probiotic properties.
These, they soon learnt, left much to be desired. Not all probiotics are created equal, says the professor.
The relationship with Cipla started two years later and only in 2007 was a patent filed. Entiro is now patented in 60 countries.
The Entiro product – which is a unique two strain probiotic that lines, binds and protects the entire gut – was finally launched into the marketplace in 2012, nine years after research had started and 60 research papers had been published and numerous trials conducted. The product encompasses a regular capsule, a fast-melting tablet, probiotic chews and drops for babies or young children.
“With each and every step it took to take the product to consumers, I was involved with Cipla. They invited me to sit down with the people who were designing the look and feel of the packaging and the brand. For me, that was a science and psychology all on its own. I was able to take what I learnt back to our research group and the university classroom, which was invaluable,” he says.
Most of the equipment needed for the research into lactic acid bacteria had to be created in-house at the university and funded by the university and Cipla which was critical to the project. This included a computerised simulated gut (see below –at that time only one of four in the world) named “Frankenswine” as it replicated a pig’s gut with four sections and an IVIS imaging system.
How did he and his team manage to break the barrier and bridge the gap between patent and commercialisation through clinical trials?
“These were done in the Western Cape thanks to Cipla. There were numerous tests and studies which were really expensive to do. The one thing that we still need to do is to get through to the international market with this product which is now South Africa’s leading brand. The FDA (The United States Food and Drug Administration) isn’t always easy to get approval from and the regulations on probiotics change rapidly,” he says.
Professor Dicks has some pertinent advice for scientists and research teams looking to take a product to marketplace.
- Stick to one field and focus on this. If you want to become a good scientist, don’t hop around and don’t get side-tracked.
- Don’t forget to dream.
- You have two brain lobes – use and exercise the creative and artistic side as well as the analytical and methodical side.
- Have regular lab meetings and learn from your students. Lab meetings are not only about discussing data. At Stellenbosch, we often just sit back and talk nonsense and let ideas flow.
- Read between the lines of published research papers. Scientists are often careless and publish everything they know. They give away such a lot of information; take that and go and make money from it as they don’t utilise it themselves and often only want to publish.
- Don’t shy away from problem solving.
- Never take anything for granted.
- Work on your management skills.
- Zip your lip. Only talk when it is safe to do so and protect your IP.
- Believe in yourself and believe that you can do whatever you set your mind to.
- Publish papers so that people know who you are. It helps build your personal brand.
- You need to have a business mind. If you do not have a business mind, get out and satisfy yourself with publishing and be happy. You won’t succeed unless you understand business and its intricacies.
When it comes to the relationship with industry partners that you do business with, it is vital to be involved in all stages as the product goes to marketplace, he says. This encompasses everything from product design and creative marketing to working with the media and listening to customer feedback.
“A scientist is not just someone doing research and this is something we need to teach to our pre-graduate students. They have to be good at science and research but they also have to be a manager and so much more,” he reiterated.
Professor Dicks is now busy with a DSc (Doctor of Science) on the effect of gut microbes on neuro psychiatric disorders or psychiatric imbalances. Watch this space.
Janine Greenleaf Walker is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.