Recipe for successful industry-academic partnerships

Published: July 21st 2020
Drs. Matthew Rise (Memorial University) and Richard Taylor checking out aquaculture pens.

Years of experience in the aquaculture industry have taught Dr. Richard Taylor that successful co-ventures with academic researchers begin with the industry partner’s ability to lead the project.

“Having the industry scientist lead is essential so that they can communicate the results to management and keep a commitment, based on what management expects and needs,” he explained.

Dr. Taylor knows first-hand about the ins and outs of that relationship as the former Principal Scientist, Method Development, first at EWOS, the main aquafeed supplier to the farmed salmon industry worldwide, and then at Cargill, the multi-sector food and agricultural giant that scooped up EWOS in 2016. He retired from Cargill in February this year.

A second collaborative must-have, he says, are realistic goals for the university scientists.

“To develop a new salmon health feed in three years, for example, can be an extreme challenge for an academic team,” said Dr. Taylor. On the other hand, he said, “To develop high throughput gene expression in three years should be one of their core areas of expertise.” He also points out, that task is more likely to generate a published research paper that advances the scientific-academic enterprise.

Dr. Taylor co-led two highly successful multi-million-dollar Genome Canada projects, supported by Genome Atlantic, under the Genomics Applications Partnership Program or GAPP, in collaboration with Cargill Animal Nutrition. (The first GAPP project actually started in 2014 under EWOS, before its acquisition by Cargill.)

Those projects teamed him first with co-leader, Dr. Matthew Rise, and with Dr. Chris Parrish, both in the Department of Ocean Studies, Memorial University.  The collaboration with Memorial University scientists continued, leading to a second project, which also added Dr. Mark Fast, Professor of Fish Health and Immunology, at the University of Prince Edward Island.

The results pinpointed salmon genes – or biomarkers – related to salmon growth and immune response, and the means to improve Cargill’s clinical diets.

The first study showed the way for more effective impact assessments of new feed ingredients on farmed salmon, while the second project offered a means to better fortify the fish against single infections and co-infections, a constant industry concern.

The partnership came about by chance. Dr. Taylor was then working in Norway, the site of EWOS’s – now Cargill’s – salmon research centre. The company wanted to collaborate more with EWOS Canada and by happy accident he met Dr. Rise at a genomics conference and later contacted him about a biomarker project that became the first GAPP initiative.

It spiralled into a second project, focusing on co-infections in salmon, and brought in Dr. Fast, well known to EWOS’s health team. Scientific conferences, says Dr. Taylor, are great venues for industry to spot needed scientific expertise and potential partners. Cargill – as did EWOS – regularly attends and presents at conferences and supports publication of research in scientific journals.

“The strategy of EWOS was to use external collaboration to develop new technology and that was the goal of the GAPP projects,” said Dr. Taylor. “We started by buying instruments; in the case of the GAPP biomarker project we bought a gene multiplexing instrument before applying for the project and it was the first one purchased in Norway. The benefit was not to develop new feeds but to develop new technology that would allow us to reach that objective.”

Dr. Taylor said, “I feel that this worked very well for all partners because the EWOS CEO had a clear mandate which was to use state-of-the-art technology at EWOS Innovation, so we knew precisely what we could and could not do – we knew which deliverables and milestones would be approved by EWOS.”

For the academic research community, EWOS was an attractive partner because it could supply samples academic partners couldn’t easily obtain.

“In this case,” said Dr. Taylor, the samples were from “large and precise salmon feeding trials, of which we did about 70 per year. We could also do pathogen challenge trials which are very valuable to academic partners.” And further, he said “we had a long history of academic collaboration so we knew what worked.”

He said, “I think that, in general, this is a good model for success,” adding “Canada has excellent universities in the field of aquaculture and maintaining their expertise should be the goal of GAPP projects.”

Drs. Fast and Rise agree their partnership with Dr. Taylor was very successful. “Definitely my experience with Richard has encouraged more work with the company he worked for, but also with the industry as a whole, “said Dr. Fast. He was impressed by Dr. Taylor’s “excellent scientific mind,” which encouraged “basic research beyond the work which can directly impact his company or industry over the short term.”

Dr. Rise called Taylor “a creative and dynamic scientist, and an excellent communicator.” He termed the relationship “extremely important” in advancing his own research program over the last five-six years. Not only did it yield important publications in aquaculture nutrigenomics and immunogenomics, but he said it gave his undergraduate and graduate students as well as his postdoctoral fellows the chance to work closely with an aquafeed industry leader and to apply their genomic and other research expertise to real-world problems.

Despite potential benefits, Dr. Taylor says a key stumbling block to cementing more widespread industry-academic partnerships is often Intellectual property rights. Those issues, he said, will usually preclude collaborative ventures on straight product development.

Dr. Taylor praised Genome Atlantic’s role as facilitator for the two GAPP projects in which he was involved. “This was my first experience with a GAPP proposal and they provided unlimited hours to aid the writing and to edit all the drafts. “When the proposal was green-lighted, Genome Atlantic supplied a half-time project manager, Cara Kirkpatrick, whom he described as “magnificent,” to do the administration. “If we had not had this extensive aid from Genome Atlantic in the first GAPP we would not have applied for the second GAPP.”

The aquaculture feed industry’s main concern in working with academic partnerships, says Dr. Taylor, is fear of losing control over research findings with commercial implications, creating a reluctance to provide extra funding outside their large internal R&D operations – Cargill maintains two state-of-the-art research centres in Norway and Chile – to accelerate the development of fish feed. However, the limited number and highly regulated environment of fish feed ingredients makes feed development a constant challenge.

Whether salmon aquaculture research is done alone or in collaboration, he says, genomics is now central to solving the pressing problems in the sector worldwide: climate change, environment, and disease.

“There are thousands of salmon biomarkers published and hundreds validated in publications. Some land animals can be phenotyped using antibodies or clinical chemistry, but for salmon the only resources available are genomic. We have determined in our GAPP projects that the genomics tools allow predictive phenotyping at a reasonable cost.”

By predictive phenotyping he means the expectation of observable or biochemical characteristics of salmon – growth, size, disease susceptibility etc. – based on their genetic and environmental influences.

Shortly before his retirement, Dr. Taylor helped secure one additional funding opportunity enabling Cargill to co-sponsor a post-doctoral fellowship via a Mitacs Accelerate grant.  This work will employ, and expand on, several of the genomic tools developed in previous collaborations to delineate markers of environmental stressors on farmed salmon and will ultimately allow Cargill to better promote fish health in an uncertain environment.    

Dr. Taylor retains a soft spot for Atlantic Canada and his former academic scientific partners here. Reached by email during the covid-19 pandemic at his secluded home in Wilkes County, N.C., two hours from Charlotte, Dr. Taylor says, “being isolated now and not having been in a restaurant for a while, I must say that we always had very good meals and conversation when I traveled to Atlantic Canada, and I certainly miss that.”