Smartfutures interviews Dr. Steve Elliman, head of research at Orbsen Therapeutics, who says no two days are the same at his Galway start-up.
Describe your typical day
My chief function is to manage 11 research scientists in the lab. Another role is grant writing. We’re a start-up so we don’t have big chunks of money from the Government or investors. Also, a lot of my work is taking the data that the guys generate in the lab and looking for the work that is novel and patentable.
What do you like best about your job?
Every day is different. The most fun I have is sitting down with the guys and seeing what results have come out of last week’s work. Seeing stuff that nobody has ever seen before is probably the best part.
What are the main challenges?
Grant writing! It’s tough and it’s competitive. Typically, for every 10 grants you write, you get one or two. We have to write 100-page proposals to describe why we need the money and what it is about our therapy that might be useful. In the last 18 months, I have probably written 10 large grants. We have been successful and landed four grants worth about €20 million.
What subjects did you take in school and did they influence your career path?
I was lucky enough to have a biology teacher called John Stebbings who taught me about genetics. I had extra lessons after school as I was fascinated. That led me to do biology at A level and inspired me to do Genetics at undergrad level. I was quite diverse at A level and did Biology, History and German. I was a huge German fan and ended up working in the Max Planck Institute in Berlin.
What did you do after school?
I went to Queen Mary College in London to study genetics. Then I went to work at Max Planck in Berlin and Oxford University as a research scientist. I went to Great Ormond Street Hospital to do my PhD. After that, I worked in Novartis Pharmaceuticals in Boston for five years. Then, I came to Galway in 2008 to set up Orbsen Therapeutics.
What’s the difference between working in a start-up, a university and a big company?
From a company perspective, the questions come from the company. They will have a specific disease that they want to chase, such as diabetes. You’re part of a 200-person team. That’s great and I loved my time at Novartis but it’s not your question.
On the other end side, you have academic research where it is your question. You might spend 50 years chasing the answer.
The start-up is much more dynamic and you have to be flexible as there’s not a lot of money. You have to have the ruthless streak of a pharma company and the passion of the academic professor.