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Working at Cancer Research UK

Dr Martyn Bottomley discusses his work as Regional Translation Lead at Cancer Research UK.

  • Name: Martyn Bottomley
  • Current position: Regional Translation Lead
  • Organisation: Cancer Research UK
  • Date of interview: May 2020

What key skills and mindsets are vital to succeed in tech transfer? 

As tech transfer professionals, what we do is survey a broad range of research, spot the opportunity or the potential in that research, determine what we need to do to take that opportunity forward and then make that happen. 

We look at ideas and think: how can this benefit patients? Or how could this generate income? Or both. And when we spot the potential in an idea, or product, we think about what we need to do to drive the idea forward, and that could be: bringing in expertise, bringing in collaborators, looking at getting an idea patented – every translational process is different. 

One of the key things for us is being able to think broadly, to think big, to have a mind that can look at something and think “What can we do with that?”, “If we put this with that, maybe we could do this”, “How could this innovation change normal practice?”. 

We need people who are creative and we need independent minds who can look at something beyond their area of expertise and see the potential in it. 

We then need people who can realise that potential, and for this it’s about leadership skills: people who can bring others together and make things happen. We also need people who are great communicators and able to convey bad as well as good news sensitively and in a way that maintains strong relationships. 

It’s not uncommon for us to work with PIs who have done some great research, and they think it is a commercial proposition, but we don’t necessarily see the translational opportunity there, or maybe we don’t see it yet. We have to convey that sensitively in a way that maintains good relationships. Communication and relationship management is a huge part of the job. And in this new world of data and AI we are all having to upskill in that area too. 

Tech transfer is quite a niche career and we’ve always struggled to recruit people directly from a tech transfer background. Typically, we look for a background in oncology, a PhD in oncology and often a postdoc. 

A postdoc is not an absolute requirement, but it’s good to have as we know that postdocs have worked as independent researchers, generated their own ideas, built their own projects, got their own funding etc, even if it’s just a travel grant. That helps. 

I wouldn’t rule out someone without a background in oncology. Obviously, being Cancer Research UK, that is the typical, traditional background – and most of our tech transfer people come from biology and chemistry, but we’re also looking for people from other areas such as physics, engineering. 

And I wouldn’t necessarily rule out someone who doesn’t have a background in science. As long as they have good analysis skills, you can learn the science. If you’ve translated something that’s a bit different, if you have skills in data, if you can think creatively and get things done, I want to hear from you. 

What does a postdoc add beyond that of a PhD? 

I’d like to think a postdoc would have more experience of independent working and project planning. A lot depends on the supervisor of a PhD student or postdoc of course. But with a postdoc, you’d like to see them beginning to form their own ideas, building their own projects, getting their own funding. 

What would make a job applicant stand out to you? 

We want people who are interested in translational research. And that interest should come across on the CV and throughout the selection process. I’d like to see evidence that you’ve spoken to the tech transfer office at your institution, maybe that you’ve tried to get a translational grant before. 

There are so many opportunities out there: the Life Arc-AUTM fellows programme offers free training, mentorship and conferences in tech transfer. There are lots of free online courses and resources. There’s the Praxis Auril Fundamental of Tech Transfer Course; at CRUK we run a programme called Ximbassadors which is a part-time paid internship in tech transfer that you can do alongside your postdoc. 

From the CV, we want to see if people have done that kind of thing, that they’re applying for the role with their eyes open, that they’re interested and they’ve invested time in their own learning beyond their PhD and postdoc. 

Any common mistakes that you see throughout the job application process? 

The main mistake is applying without researching and understanding what tech transfer is, just thinking it’s another career path that you can do because you’re aware other postdocs have done it. Even if you’re a good scientist it doesn’t make you a natural fit to technology transfer. 

Most tech transfer teams would be happy to host people for a brief secondment to get experience and develop their skills, so contact people to learn more. 

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