The Merck-Purdue Center for Measurement Science is a win-win-win. Merck & Co. scientists get access to experts at one of the top U.S. programs in measurement science and the chance to contribute to projects outside their day-to-day work. Purdue University professors get real-world problems to work on and a source of new funding. And Purdue students get to collaborate with industry scientists and explore a potential career path.
This center is by no means the first academic-industrial partnership. But a distinguishing feature of this one is that it’s not aimed at generating new intellectual property for the industrial half of the equation. The focus is instead on precompetitive technology that can help Merck solve some of its measurement challenges, such as reaction monitoring in flow systems and improved separation of proteins and peptides for therapeutics. And if things go well, the technologies could benefit the broader pharma industry.
“Merck and Purdue have established this Center for Measurement Science as a means to fast-track collaborations between industry and academia,” says Garth J. Simpson, a chemistry professor who’s the main organizer on the Purdue side. Every time you want to pair up academic and industry scientists to work on a new project, it requires negotiating a brand-new research contract, Simpson says. “That can take several months under the best circumstances.”
“Every single time, you start the process over again,” says Roy Helmy, executive director of biologics and vaccines bioanalytics within PPDM (pharmacokinetics, pharmacodynamics, and drug metabolism) at Merck Research Laboratories. He’s been involved with other partnerships before. “It’s just too onerous.”
A master agreement between Merck and Purdue circumvents such problems. Negotiating that master agreement, which was finalized in February 2017, took more than a year. But now that it’s in place, the agreement saves both sides the hassle of ironing out a separate agreement for every new project. And setting up the deal with the university rather than a particular department widens the pool of possible collaborators.
Under the agreement, Purdue retains the intellectual property rights on any discoveries made or tools developed. Such an arrangement allows the scientists free rein to publish the work and enables the students to include it in their dissertations.
Either side can initiate projects. Purdue scientists can pitch their ideas to Merck scientists. Alternatively, Merck scientists can identify potential partners with overlapping interests through presentations at scientific meetings, informal networking, or even from websites of participating professors. If the two sides decide to work together, they submit a two-page proposal to fund the project.
“The best projects are ones in which someone at Purdue and someone at Merck get together and put together a collaborative proposal,” Simpson says. “A lot of our effort is spent matchmaking, just getting the right people talking to each other.”
During the first year of the partnership, projects involved Merck scientists in the bioanalytical organization of PPDM, analytical chemistry, and analytical sciences. (The difference between the latter two is that analytical chemistry supports making drug molecules, and analytical sciences supports the formulation of those drugs for delivery.) This year, scientists working in vaccines, biologics, and manufacturing have also joined. “They joined us after seeing the success of the first year,” Helmy says.
Merck scientists can join the center only if their department has allocated funds. Participating Merck departments budget money for the center in different ways, says Kevin Bateman, scientific associate vice president at Merck Research Laboratories. Some earmark a set amount for external collaborations. Others require ideas to be pitched internally to receive funding.
“We vet projects before they go forward,” Bateman says. “You don’t want to get all the way down the path of ‘This is a really good project’ and then yank it because there’s no money.”
Merck has so far funded more than 10 projects through the center. Each project receives a flat amount of $50,000 regardless of whether it takes a couple of weeks, a couple of months, or the maximum time of one year to solve the scientific problem in the project pitch.
“If you can solve the problem in four weeks, fantastic,” Helmy says. “We’ve had teams who were able to solve their problem in three months. Then they’re done.” In the 18 months since the center got up and running, researchers have already had five or six publications and one patent application.
If the collaborative teams find that they want to work on something longer term, “that would be outside the scope of the center, and a stand-alone agreement would be put in place,” Bateman says. “The center is really about being an incubator.”
For the academics, the collaborations let them know what’s important in the real world. “We can live in an academic bubble, where we go to meetings and talk about what we think is important in the real world,” Simpson says. “But working with people who live in the real world helps ground us.”
Simpson has had a project on using triboluminescence—light emitted as a result of mechanical disruption in a crystal—to detect microcrystallinity in amorphous materials. Such residual microcrystallinity is important because it can affect the solubility of a drug.
“We had already designed and created the instrument before Merck came on,” says Casey Smith, a graduate student in Simpson’s lab. The Merck scientists “asked a lot of really good questions. They helped us know which questions were pertinent to industry.”
In another project, R. Graham Cooks’s group at Purdue used microdroplet reaction acceleration to speed up forced degradation analyses. Pharma companies use such analyses to demonstrate the shelf life of a drug and determine whether any toxic products form as it ages and breaks down. “The methodologies in current use are slow, to say the least,” Cooks says. When his team used microdroplet reaction acceleration to study the degradation, the researchers observed the same results as standard techniques, but they got to those results 100 times as fast. This microdroplet method was the first patent application to come out of the center.
“The Merck-Purdue relationship is a really terrific thing for Purdue, hopefully for Merck as well,” says Paul W. Bohn, a chemistry professor at the University of Notre Dame. Bohn is helping set up the Center for Bioanalytic Metrology, which is modeled on a similar industry-academic collaboration. That center will include researchers in the analytical sciences at Notre Dame, Purdue, and Indiana University and will operate under a membership model with multiple companies. The organizers hope to get start-up funding for the center from the National Science Foundation’s Industry-University Cooperative Research Center program.
“All of us recognize that the model where the funding for students comes from individual grants is starting to creak under its own weight,” Bohn says. Those funds are no longer readily available. “There’s not going to be one answer to the problem,” Bohn adds. “Compared with the current situation, there’s going to be a whole portfolio of different funding models that go into making graduate student funding and support 20 years from now.”
But the biggest payoff for the Merck-Purdue partnership may come from educating young scientists who already know the challenges that industry faces in measurement science. They get to interact with Merck scientists through monthly web conferences and by presenting their results at a symposium at Merck.
“We’ve created for the industry—not just Merck—a team of scientists and professors who understand what we face every day to put cutting-edge medicine on the market,” Helmy says. “Merck is very proud that these students can go work anywhere in the world and be ready and supportive of what we’re doing in industry.”
“It’s hard to translate your student experience to what it would be like to work in industry,” Smith says. He goes back and forth between wanting to teach and wanting to work in industry. Collaborating with Merck scientists has helped him appreciate the options. “I could actually see myself working in industry and being happy there.”