Dr Trevor Laird: courted by the lawyers

8 Dec 2012

Trevor Laird, an expert witness in process chemistry, spoke at the 30th SCI Process Development Symposium in December 2012. Here he explains that while pharma may be in the doldrums at the moment, there could be a bright future ahead for organic, electronic chemicals for solar energy devices.

What does your current job involve?
I'm head of a company I set up called Scientific Update and I'm involved in organising training courses, conferences, and particularly consultation. And I do a lot of expert witness work in court.

What does that involve?
I'm asked by lawyers to testify on particular aspects relating to process patents. Because the pharmaceutical industry at the moment is involved in quite a lot of litigation, Big Pharma (the pharmaceutical industry) is trying to extend the patents on its blockbuster drugs and generic drugs: companies trying to get a share of the market - so there's a lot of litigation, particularly in the US, but also in Europe, based on the processed patents that are expiring.

How did you become involved with that?
I was first involved through a case about 15 years ago when they needed a process expert. It's mostly to do with the chemistry; some academic professors are also involved in cases. But the reason I get involved a lot is because there aren't too many independent process chemists around: most experts are working for Big Pharma or generic companies, but because I have my own consultancy, I'm seen as more independent.

Did you have an interest in science from childhood?
Not always, but I had a very good chemistry teacher at school who started my interest, partly through demonstrations and experiments - the bangs and smells approach that old chemistry teachers used to have.

Did your decision to pursue a career in science stem from there?
Yes, I think I found I was good at it. I was undecided whether I wanted to do chemistry or maths at university, because I was always good at maths, but I think because of the career aspects I chose chemistry; and never regretted it!

What are the most important things you've learned in your career so far?
The importance of being positive; being an optimist. It seems to me if you don't go into an experiment with the attitude ‘this is going to work', you'll find reasons for it not to. So you have to be positive. And you have to be determined, and work the hours; it is as much about the perspiration as the inspiration.

What have been the significant milestones of your career so far?
The first milestone was getting published when I was doing my PhD. The second was setting up my own business, which is completely different to working for big companies; I worked for ICI, and SmithKline & French (now GlaxoSmithKline), big multinationals. So setting up my own business was a really big milestone. And the third was setting up a journal with the American Chemical Society called Organic Process Research and Development, of which I've now been editor-in-chief for over 15 years.

What key things would a young person need to do if they wanted to get to the position you've achieved thus far?
First of all, you have to be enthused by chemistry. It has to be something that you're fascinated by, and you have to have done a PhD in a topic that you really enjoy. And then it's finding the openings in the right company, which can be few and far between these days.

How did you first become involved with SCI, and what has that involvement meant to you?
I first became involved as a member through attending SCI meetings at Belgrave Square (SCI headquarters in London) in the 1970s, but as I was based in Lancashire, I couldn't attend regularly. Then, when I joined SmithKline & French in Tonbridge in 1979, I became much more actively involved. I joined the Fine Chemicals Committee in 1981 and was heavily involved throughout the 1980s, including being Secretary of the committee.

You presented at the 30th SCI Process Development Symposium: what did you discuss ?
I presented a talk called Process R&D - the last 120 years and the next 20: lessons from the past and predictions for the future. I was asked to write an article for a book last year about the history of process chemistry, so I had to research what had been done in the 1870s and 1880s, when large-scale chemistry was really starting to become important in industry.

I was surprised about the quality of work, and really enjoyed writing the article, and seeing how the changes over the last 120 years took place. So I've got the basis of the historical part, but I thought it would be useful to also examine where the industry is going, and what we can expect over the next 20 years.

And is the future looking positive?
I think globally, in the long term, it is. Unfortunately in the UK, with so many redundancies over the last two to three years, it's not great, but there's a lot of expansion in India and China. I think we have to look at all aspects of industry: pharmaceuticals are in the doldrums at the moment, but you never know what's coming up.

Organic, electronic chemicals for solar energy devices - that might be the next big expansion in fine chemical manufacturing, giving new opportunities to people in the future.

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