How engagement and collaboration between industry and academia can help bridge the skills gap

The skills gap is one of the biggest risks for organisations today, according to a recent article published [1] as part of the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting held in Davos, Switzerland earlier this year.  It highlights we must cast a wide net to find new sources of talent and ultimately, there is no better way to stake a claim in the future than by harnessing the greatest of all possibilities: people.

The world around us is changing rapidly. Across the globe, the pace of digital transformation is accelerating and fundamentally, is impacting all business models. Both pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry are on the same trajectory, with the development of innovative medicines in a digital and technology driven era evolving dramatically over the past decade. There is no doubt the pharmaceutical industry and healthcare paradigm are experiencing major transformation. The evolution of fields such as genomics, bioinformatics, computational biology, predictive analytics and data science to name a few, are reshaping the needs of a future pharmaceutical workforce. The skill set of the past may no longer feature in the future. A report published by the Association of British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) [2] in 2015, provides a clear view on the robust skills that are needed now and into the future for the industry to thrive.

So, how in the pharmaceutical industry can we not only harness the potential of our existing people, our employees, but importantly attract and build a future ready workforce in our STEM graduates. STEM graduates that understand the industry perspective and meet the real-world needs of innovative medicines development. Now more than ever, we must rethink our approach to cross disciplinary talent and skill development. Not only technical skills but importantly, those skills that cannot be automated. The “human” or soft skills such as leadership, creativity, agility, problem solving, adaptability and emotional intelligence. There is much value to gain from developing these skills in our STEM Graduates. Industry wide collaboration with our academic sector is vital to this effort.

Pharmaceutical companies and academia traditionally have a strong foundation for advancing science through powerful, research collaborative partnerships. Most, if not all pharmaceutical companies have a partnering strategy [3] and now more than ever, we are seeing the establishment of open innovation platforms; internship programs and business mentoring offerings. That said, there is much more to do. We must think beyond the traditional collaborative models and pure science driven endeavours and reconstruct our collaborative approaches in more strategic, innovative ways, at a grassroots level.

There is much to be gained by thinking differently, challenging the status quo and ensuring both sectors are committed to developing new STEM talent, together! However, it would be remiss to not acknowledge the ever-increasing R&D costs and productivity pressures often faced by the pharmaceutical and biotechnology sector and the impact fiscal constraints can play on collaborative enterprises with academia. It is therefore important to think about economies of scale and how we create high impact, agile, cost efficient and sustainable collaborative models to help bridge the skills gap and proactively develop a future ready workforce.

The term grassroots level is critical to this thinking. It is imperative that we first establish an agreed common goal. The engagement platforms and opportunities for industry and academia to communicate openly, to be realistic and to identify together the skills needed in a future ready STEM workforce. There may well be a need for industry to be more explicit in outlining what it is looking for when attracting new talent. There are many good examples of strong industry-academic collaborations, however, they are often driven by individuals that, over time, have nurtured and evolved a strong network.

To achieve real change and close the skills gap, we must acknowledge the need for a sector-wide approach. It is not the responsibility of one pharmaceutical company or an individual university but rather a shared commitment and responsibility. There must be a strategic, not ad hoc, approach to industry-academia engagement, with strong leadership and clearly articulated workforce and talent development goals.

An excellent report released by Mercer, Australia [4] in 2019 highlights, in a time of rapid and complex change, new thinking is required in how we achieve successful industry-education engagement. It is frank in stating that, the stakes are high for academic and industry collaboration in Australia today. We are a nation that highly values the ideal of industry collaboration, substantially punching above our weight in global academic performance, but when it comes to the practicalities and processes of working with industry and business, we are trailing behind much of the developed world.

“We want to truly stimulate collaborative ecosystems to drive holistic solutions to a complex problem like developing a future ready workforce able to research, develop and manufacture the medicines of tomorrow”

Taking that grass roots approach, is there more opportunity for the pharmaceutical sector collectively, to develop joint curricula with academia and for expanding business and educational mentoring type initiatives as part of undergraduate and postgraduate courses There must be value attributed to university teaching staff and curricula having industry ties and real-world perspectives.

The Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering’s Industry Mentoring Network in STEM [5] (IMNIS) has achieved much success by connecting STEM based PhD students with industry experts across Australia to support an industry understanding and navigation of career pathways. This could certainly be a bench mark model in which to investigate and build new pioneering avenues of industry-academia mentoring and entrepreneurship programs. With the right frameworks and engagement platforms in place, there could be greater facilitation of real-world innovation challenges and more knowledge transfer.

There is much to learn from collaborative experiences from across the globe. It has long been said that Silicon Valley, with its proximity to Stanford and University of California, Berkeley, has long been the paradigm for innovation ecosystems [6]. We must leverage the many digital platforms and software tools becoming available to support and boost the scale-up of industry-academia collaborations [7] and be open to more dynamic, agile and real time collaborative models, whereby we share expertise, resources, knowledge and data and facilitate interactions across industry-academic networks and beyond.

We want to truly stimulate collaborative ecosystems to drive holistic solutions to a complex problem like developing a future ready workforce able to research, develop and manufacture the medicines of tomorrow.

About the author:

Dr Julie Ince-Demetriou, BSc (Hons); PhD Associate Director, Early Phase Research, AstraZeneca Pty Ltd

Dr Julie Ince-Demetriou has a diverse background combining clinical research, strategic leadership and management expertise, having had a career spanning more than 20 years across the private and public sector. Julie holds a bachelor’s degree with Honours in Applied Chemistry and a PhD in Organic Chemistry from the University of Exeter, UK. Julie started her career as a Medical Representative, before moving into various clinical development roles of increasing responsibility across industry, including with IQVIA, GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer, responsible for the delivery of multiple global clinical trial programs. In 2011, she was appointed Program Lead, Clinical Trials Program in the Strategic Research Investment Division of the Cancer Institute, NSW, the State Governments Cancer Control Agency. During her time at the Cancer Institute, she also held the temporary position of Acting Director, Strategic Research investment Division. In 2015, Julie returned to industry, where she now holds the position of Associate Director in AstraZeneca, responsible for leading the strategic development and delivery of the early phase research program in Australia and New Zealand. Julie is a casual lecturer at the UNSW, Sydney for the Masters of Pharmaceutical Medicine course and represents industry on several research advisory committees, including for AusBiotech and NSW Health Office of Health and Medical Research. She is also an active industry mentor in the Industry Mentoring Network in STEM (IMNIS), an industry led-initiative of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering.

Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not express the views or opinions of their employer or affiliations.


[2] Association of British Pharmaceutical Industry, Bridging the Skills Gap 2015

[3] If you would like to learn more on partnering with AstraZeneca

[4] Mercer Report

[5] IMNIS Program

[6] Why Companies and Universities should forge long term collaborations, 2018.

[7] Top Industry – Academia Collaboration Software Platforms