An interview with Arpita De, PhD
Arpita De is a scientific project manager & senior scientist at Copenhagen Nanosystems ApS (cphnano), a company that develops technology for Next Generation UV-Vis Spectroscopy in Copenhagen, Denmark. In her role at cphnano she leads several research initiatives that involve collaboration with academic institutions to develop biosensor products using nanotechnology.
Arpita has a bachelor’s in Biotechnology from West Bengal University of Technology in Calcutta, India, a master’s in Biomedical Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay, India, and a PhD in Electrical Engineering and Nanotechnology from the University of Twente in the Netherlands. She has found this broad range of training to be useful in her career as a device developer.
Arpita had originally planned an academic career path, but after relocating to Denmark she found it difficult to break into the university system. This resulted in her taking a temporary industry position that changed her whole perspective on the career path she wanted to pursue.
Below is an excerpt of my interview with Arpita to discuss her career path so far and the value she has achieved from collaborating with university research groups. (Look for the full interview to appear in my forthcoming book, Shaping the World: The Privilege of Being a Scientist in Industry)
An excerpt from our conversation:
Dave: What led you to science and engineering as your career path?
Arpita: I had three great teachers for physics, chemistry, and mathematics when I was in school, and that started my interest in science. My physics teacher was especially great. She had a PhD, but she chose to teach in a high school in our small town, a city in West Bengal called Asansol. The way she taught and brought out the best of the subject was really fascinating. I always wanted to be like her, and it got me thinking about pursuing science myself. Looking back, my school was so lucky to have a teacher with an advanced science degree. It was an all-girls school, and she made a huge difference for a lot of students. It was really empowering to have her as an influence.
Another factor in my career path that is that my father was in coal mining engineering, so we lived outside the city. I developed a connection to nature and science living outside the city, but I also developed a resilience and work ethic that has helped me in my career. There was a school bus that took the children in our area to school in the city, so starting when I was around five years old, I was commuting two hours each way to my school. I had a routine where I’d wake up very early in the morning, have my breakfast, and then sleep on the bus on the way to school. Then at the end of the day I’d spend another two hours to get home. This taught me that enduring a hardship to get something I wanted had real value. When I experience a hardship in the course of my life or career, I am quick to think, ‘I can handle this. What’s the big deal?’
Dave: I can see how that resilience would be valuable in a science career. Please continue your story.
Arpita: I was a good student and at the top of my class, but I didn’t do well on the Joint Entrance Exams that are so critical for students in India. I wanted to attend one of the Indian Institutes of Technology, but I was not accepted. It felt terrible, but I didn't want to waste time, so I went to a private institution and graduated with a four-year degree in biotechnology.
At that point I took the national master's program entrance exam, and I made it to IIT Bombay. That was like a dream come true for me. I’d made it to the best national institute and my heart was at peace. It was extremely intense for two years, but I completed a master’s degree in biomedical engineering.
After that I got an opportunity to do a PhD in biomedical engineering with Albert van den Berg's BIOS Lab-on-a-chip group in the Electrical Engineering department at Twente University in the Netherlands. They are pioneers in the microfluidics industry, and that’s where I was exposed to the area of BioMEMs and nanotechnology for life science applications, which is the technology I work with now. My PhD topic was related to electronic DNA detection using a silicon nanowire. We thought that the method might be useful in a smart pill for early detection of certain colorectal cancers. The idea was that you would swallow the pill and it would detect the cells shed from these specific cancers. But as time went on, I was not getting the results I hoped for. That was very troubling for me.
The instrumentation was really great, and the student before me had demonstrated that the method worked. It was up to me to move the technology into an application, but I didn’t have the data I needed to show it would work. It was hard for a long time, and I started thinking that it must be me that was the problem. This was just what I’d wanted, a dream project with a great advisor, and it wasn’t working.
My advisor was very supportive, and we systematically collected enough data to conclude that there was a problem with the method and not the experiment. We ended up concluding that the ultra-low molecular concentration levels we needed to detect were two orders of magnitude below what the method could practically achieve. There was a lot of good research showing the method itself was valid, but to translate it into a biosensor was going to be a nightmare.
Dave: So, your PhD project was really focused on making a device, not just on researching the technology?
Arpita: Yes, that’s right. I was always more interested in the biotech instruments than the biotechnology per se.
Looking back, I think the best lesson I got out of my PhD experience was the disappointment that the technology I was developing was not suitable for translating into a commercial product. It taught me to think carefully about whether an interesting technology has the possibility to be commercialized, and that helps me in my career now that I’m working in industry.
Dave: How did you get from your PhD to the private sector?
After my PhD I took one postdoc at the Technical University of Munich and then another at Eindhoven University of Technology. By the time I completed the second postdoc I’d gotten married and I was expecting my first child. We moved to Denmark so my husband could take a good job there, and I decided to wait until my son was a little bit older before I looked for another job.
When I started looking for a job again, I got an offer to be an assistant professor at one of the new Indian Institutes of Technology. I decided to take it, but it turned out to be in a very remote place in India, and I began thinking it was a step backwards. Here I was back in India with a small child, and if I stayed there my husband would need to move back. So, I decided to be strong, leave the job, and move back to Denmark. I figured that I could find a university job there, but after several months I was not getting any job offers. I learned that it is difficult to get a university job in Scandinavia if you haven’t gotten your degrees there, so I concluded that I’d need to take a different approach.
So, I took an R&D internship with a startup company that had been formed at the University of Copenhagen (KU). I’d been sitting at home with my son for close to two years and I just wanted to get back to work. The position was temporary, but I figured it would get me started and maybe it would lead to something better.
But when the internship came to an end, the company couldn't offer me a full-time position. So, I reached out to a contact I’d made earlier at a Technical University of Denmark (DTU) startup. They were developing a nanotechnology sensor that I thought that was a really great fit for my interests. My contact asked me why I wanted to work for them, so I told him my story and how my PhD and postdoc had left me with an unfulfilled dream to develop a new technology into a working sensor product. I told him that I admired how his company had developed a new photonic crystal technology into a robust and ready-to-use product, and I would really like to be part of their team and help develop the product further. He said he had a job for me, and that’s how I got my current role.
Dave: I understand that you’ve developed several university collaborations in this role. Can you tell us about that?
Arpita: Funding can be a real challenge in a startup, of course, and I found myself in an environment with much less funding than when I was working in academic research. I thought back to the company where I’d done the internship and recalled that they had used soft funding (i.e. government grants) to fund salaries. I mentioned this to the CEO, and he said he'd been applying for grants in Denmark from the primary grant provider, Innovation Fund Denmark (IFD), and also at the national investment fund, VækstFonden, for a long time. Smaller grants were approved by IFD, but VækstFonden would always turn down the investments. He suspected that our small company didn’t have enough credibility to be awarded big investments and large grant applications. We thought that perhaps if we brought in some university researchers as collaborators it would help our credibility and we might have better success.
The approach worked, and we ended up getting four different projects in this way. One was a partnership with the Danish Fundamental Metrology (DFM) Institute, and another was a fantastic project with my old supervisor at IIT Bombay. Also, the Danish government had a few grants designed for helping startups, and we were able to secure a few of those. Slowly we built our credibility in this way, because with each grant you win, they trust you more. Today both IFD and VækstFonden have given us money. We also gain credibility with private investors, because if a public funding body believes in us enough to fund our projects, other investors take us more seriously.
These collaboration projects cover our running costs and product development, and they have turned out to be a good survival strategy for a few years. But, of course, a startup can't operate on grants indefinitely. Eventually, you have to develop enough product sales to sustain your company, and that is our current focus. We moved out of our incubation space at DTU in 2021 and rented a place in Copenhagen with our own office, lab, and production space. We built a dedicated commercial team that is focused on building sales, and we are working extremely hard to secure venture capital.
Dave: What are the biggest benefits that your company gets from working with an academic researcher, besides better success with grant applications?
Arpita: Peer-reviewed publications with the university researchers as co-authors are a huge benefit. They provide a public validation of our technology and bring in a wider audience than we would ever get on our own.
Another important benefit is that most university groups are much better funded than we were, so we now have access to better instrumentation and infrastructure. This really helps push our product development forward. The only downside is that we have to share any IP generated with our collaborators.
Finally, we get PhD students and sometimes postdocs and other skilled people from the university to focus on the problem we are solving. The quality of the scientific skill set working on the project is quite high with an academic collaboration, and the students are very motivated since they are working towards their degrees. They can often spend more time and go in more depth on the problem than we can, and it makes a real difference. Of course, being inexpensive labor is also the sad part of being a PhD student or a postdoc.
Dave: It sounds like you’ve had a very successful shift in your career in the last few years.
Arpita: My experience in the last few years has really changed my opinion of working in industry, and I feel very lucky to have gotten this opportunity. Initially I wanted an academic career, and when I left that position in India and returned to Denmark, I was a bit desperate to get a university job. But in the end, I landed in a very nice learning environment, and it has worked out very well for me.
I’m lucky to be working with a good technical team, and that makes it a very nice place to be. I really enjoy what I do now, and I’ve learned many new things working as a scientist in industry.
It’s an option that I think PhDs should consider from early on in their careers.
Find Arpita's LinkedIn profile here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/arpita-de-98811313/