In this week’s issue of Capsid and Tail, we bring you an interview with Dr. Ben Burrowes. While currently working as a Senior Scientist at the Center for Phage Technology, Texas A&M University, Dr. Burrowes also runs his own phage consultancy company, BB Phage Consultancy, LLC. In this interview, Ben tells the story of how his unrelenting networking has helped shape his career path.
Rohit: Could you tell us about a little bit about how you got interested in phages and your career path to your current position?
Ben: I first got interested in phages in 1997, thanks to a BBC TV show called Horizon. Every week, they would focus on an interesting scientific subject to discuss and that episode focused on viruses that kill bacteria for therapeutic use: phage therapy. By the end of the show, I remember I was quite sold on phages and the prospect of applying phages for therapeutic purposes.
A few years later, when I was finishing my HND (equivalent to an associate degree in the US) in Applied Biology at the University of Brighton, one of the course requirements was a honors research project. I knew I wanted to use this opportunity to explore the phage field, but I was not sure how many, if any, labs in England were working on phage therapy. To my fortune, I found out about a lab on the University of Brighton campus, headed by Dr. Geoff Hanlon at the School of Pharmacy, that was doing some phage work.
After finishing my degree, I continued to work in the same lab while I completed my bachelor’s degree, then I decided to move out of England to the US to explore phage therapy work being done here. With no job offer to start working straight away, I emailed hundreds of phage researchers in the states and ended up traveling all around the states to go meet those who replied. It was during this period that I met Betty Kutter for the first time, got a chance to visit Gangagen, the University of Florida in Gainesville, George Washington University and a whole bunch of other places. During one of such visits, I met Dr. Joe Fralick at the Texas Tech Health Sciences Center, who offered me a paid PhD position, and in 2004 I ended up in Lubbock, Texas for graduate school.
R: Moving halfway around the world without a secure job or position must have been a challenging decision. Did you have any source of funding for the travel? And how did the transition to industry happen?
B: Yes, it was quite challenging, but there were other personal reasons that helped me arrive at the decision. I self-funded my travel to and within the US and had to spend a significant portion of my savings for that. But I saw this as a great opportunity to network and make contacts in the phage community within the states, and in the end it definitely turned out to be worth it.
From all my experiences so far, I have learned that the global phage community is very network-dependent. While the relatively small size of the phage research community helps, I think conferences like Evergreen, the way they are set up, provide a great platform for such interactions and potential collaborations.
At one of the Evergreen meetings, I had the chance to meet Dr. David Harper, the founder of Biocontrol (which later became Ampliphi Biosciences and is now Armata Pharmaceuticals), a UK based company that was running a phase 2 phage therapy clinical trial at that time. David and I continued to communicate over the next year, and I was offered a consultant job at Biocontrol in 2010. I moved to Bedford UK, literally 4 days after my PhD defense, only to be sent back to the US a year later to set up their lab in Richmond, Virginia.
After a great experience establishing the Richmond facility and helping initiate the American foothold for Ampliphi, I moved to a Senior Scientist position at Geneweave Biosciences in 2013. Launched as a phage-based diagnostics platform start-up in San Jose, California, Geneweave was remarkably effective at marketing themselves and their product. The company grew from 20 employees to 50 over the next two years and ultimately was acquired by Roche Molecular Diagnostics for well over $300 Million in 2015.
R: How did you feel transitioning from a startup to being part of one of the industry’s biggest organizations?
B: I definitely appreciated the financial benefits associated with the takeover, but it was also an interesting experience going through the contrasting work culture settings from a small, new start-up to a huge established pharma giant. I like working with small groups of people, as it creates an intimate atmosphere where everyone knows one another and has a sense of unified purpose, which is impossible to replicate in a larger setting. For example, during both my experiences at Biocontrol and Geneweave, I would have regular conversations with the CEO and CFO, which I would never expect to happen at Roche.
I knew the career progression, job stability and benefits would be better at a bigger company like Roche, but I was not interested in that position anymore. I resigned from my job at Roche in March 2019 and moved to Austin, where unlike California I could afford to live without a constant, high influx of income.
Over the next few months, I worked with a team on a start-up idea that has as yet failed to generate the required funding, and even drove for Uber Eats and Amazon. During this time, I got in touch with Dr. Jason Gill at Texas A&M University who let me know about an opening for a Research Scientist at the Center for Phage Technology. The CPT research group, led by Dr. Ryland Young, was about the ideal size for me to thrive, so I interviewed for the job and fortunately got selected.
R: How and when did you start your consultancy career? What kind of services do you offer to your clients?
B: I had always felt phage consultancy could really benefit a lot of microbiology and molecular biology companies that are not entirely phage-centric but partially depend on phage biology for their process or product design. Even though the general perception is that anyone with basic microbiology skills can work with phages, there are nuances and subtleties that are sometimes species and phage specific, which trained phage biologists are better at figuring out. So, while I was searching for opportunities after Roche, I thought it would be a perfect time for me to set up the consultancy and then market myself to companies for contractual work, if not full-time employment.
Around the same time, one of the founders of Geneweave got me in touch with a company that was seeking advice on their phage work. I immediately filed the necessary paperwork, signed a contract with the company and that was the official start of my consultancy. So far, I have got myself involved with companies from diverse fields ranging from bioproduction to agricultural phage applications. I usually work with the Chief Research Officers to develop phage-based contract research programs catered to their needs.
R: Can you give a brief overview of the requirements and the process to set up a phage consultancy?
B: Well, you need to be a phage biologist to begin with. Next, it is imperative to have a reasonable and diverse amount of industrial experience to understand the perspective of the prospective clients. The “academia” approach to a question does not necessarily serve the purpose of a company, which is more interested in the product and how it can be sold.
A consultant’s job is essentially to understand the client’s exact goals, apply their phage expertise/skills and come up with solutions tailored to their needs, in the “right” language. Figuring out a name, registering the consultancy/LLC, buying a domain and getting the necessary paperwork in place would be some of the next steps, and procedures usually depend on the state/country of registration.
A lot of people get stuck designing flashy websites, but it is far more vital for it to be found through a search engine, which can be manipulated by using keywords. Additional requirements would depend on the kind of services being offered. For example, one could offer basic characterization services for a broad range of phages or in-depth characterization services for phages linked to a host of interest. While having lab space and an office or conferencing space opens a lot of possibilities, they are not a requirement if no wet lab services are being offered.
Once everything has been set up, constant networking again plays a key role in getting the word out and marketing the consultancy to prospective clients. I have not had to travel as part of any of the contracts I have worked on so far, but consultants usually must be prepared for travel to on-site activities as needed.
R: Thanks for the valuable insights, Ben. Besides the consultancy, you are also transitioning back into academia now. How has that experience been?
B: It has been an interesting experience transitioning back into academia, given how long I was on the industry side of research. I had never even been a teaching assistant during my grad school, but now I am teaching the wet lab component of the phage genomics course offered by the CPT. It has been equally exciting and challenging, but I have had great support from Jason, Ry and others at the CPT. I also enjoy interacting with the students quite a lot, who honestly impress me with how knowledgeable they are about phages compared to how much I was when I was at that stage.
The BBC TV show Horizon episode on bacteriophages (Viruses that cure) mentioned at the beginning of this discussion can be found here. The video provides a noteworthy peek into the perception on phage therapy back in 1997.