Pia Winberg and the trials of industry collaboration

For a modern scientist, the ivory tower is no longer an option. Seeing how Pia Winberg formed partnerships with industry enthralled Nicole Fetchet as a new way of doing science.

 Illustration by Meg Gough-Brooks

Illustration by Meg Gough-Brooks


Model Specimens is a monthly column that explores the role models who inspired today's scientists. This month, Nicole Fetchet, a chemist in the Questacon Science Circus, shares how Dr Pia Winberg introduced her to the world of collaborations between industry and academia.

A career as a scientist. What does this really mean? And what does a ‘real’ job in science actually look like? These are questions people in the science field continue to ask, and questions that play havoc on an undergraduate student's mind. 

This was me. I was in the penultimate year of my International Bachelor of Science degree, and about to select my honours research project. I was pretty certain I didn’t want to work in an academic research lab for the rest of my life, but I didn’t really know what else I could do with a chemistry degree. The only scientists mentioned at university were academics, yet I was sure there was a different path I could take. I went to seminars, workshops and courses, searching high and low for internships with industry. I craved the science that would enable me to directly have a positive impact on people’s lives and would be used today, not 10 or 20 years down the track. It made me pretty ambivalent about the direction of my career. That was until I went to a careers panel session and met marine scientist Dr Pia Winberg.

I can remember the day well. Pia sat on a panel of well dressed and highly successful men from the health and science sectors. They each shared anecdotes of their careers; some heavily boasting about the success of their business or company, their budgets, or their personal awards and achievements. But not Pia. She shared truths about her growing business, her hard work, the applications of her degree. What she did differently was she spoke with passion. It was genuine. Not only did she highlight the very real struggles of a career in science, but she shared her optimism and excitement about the future of science with a room full of fresh faced undergraduate students. I was impressed by her attitude, her honesty and where she was taking her science career. This excited me to explore the reality of science in industry.

Pia is a scientist, entrepreneur, collaborator, business woman, mum, and the mind behind the company Venus Shell Systems. Originally from Sweden, Pia has studied around the world, before settling in Australia to complete a PhD in Marine Ecology. Over the years, Pia has held a range of positions including: Research Officer at the Jervis Bay Marine Park (NSW), Director of the Shoalhaven Marine and Freshwater Centre, Seaweed Australia’s Executive Officer and is at present the Director of Venus Shell Systems. All of these roles have involved collaboration between academia and industry.

The focus of her work is the ocean. I asked Pia what it was that made her pursue a career in science. She simply followed what she loved and the things that fascinated her. Her advice to others is: “Consider what you love rather than what you want to be. That will lead you down the right path.” The aim of her company Venus Shell Systems is to produce high quality and traceable seaweed to a range of customers. Her clients include restaurants, farmers, nutrition specialists, as well as cosmetic and pharmaceutical manufacturers. Increasingly, these customers and their consumers want to know the origins of the products they use. Traceable cultivation enables control over desirable properties such as the composition of proteins and carbohydrates in the seaweed. 

  Pia Winberg's company produces nutrient-rich marine algae (otherwise known as seaweed).  © Venus Shell Systems (used with permission)

Pia Winberg's company produces nutrient-rich marine algae (otherwise known as seaweed). © Venus Shell Systems (used with permission)

The seaweed produced by Venus Shell Systems can contain up to 40 percent protein and is used to manufacture nutritious foods like pastas and proteins bars and dietary supplements (nutraceuticals), with a focus on gut health. The company has also branched out into pharmaceutical research, developing products such as a topical wound healing cream. 

Though Pia’s work sounds straightforward, Australia currently imports most of the seaweed we eat at the dinner table. Yet our nation is an island surrounded by ocean! Pia is working to transition lab-based science to a commercial reality. Her aims are to challenge people’s perceptions about natural products, as well as industry-academia collaborations. But going against the norm and changing the way society acts takes a long time. And this is a challenge Pia has had to face.

Working alongside Pia has taught me valuable lessons about the nexus of science and industry. The most important is that academia needs to work with industry in order to stay relevant. To do that requires good collaboration based around communication, flexibility and perspective.

Good collaboration

Pia has been forced to understand the multiple dimensions required to run a business, so she is constantly changing hats from that of an academic, to a business investor, to a consumer. This is something not many people are able to do. Collaboration between industry and academia requires transparency and effective communication. All parties need to be upfront about their intentions and requirements of the project, making strong negotiation skills essential. 

The main thing is to try and walk in all the shoes, stick to the facts and understand the context from a position of [everyone] rowing the boat in the same direction. I think that this is a challenge when people don't understand that we are all working towards the same goals and it is better to do that together.” 
- Pia Winberg

Unfortunately, collaborations don't always go to plan, and not all Pia’s collaborations have been ideal. She faced difficulties when the final goal of the project was not clearly outlined, a result of miscommunication. But she took this on board. I found this concept vital while working on a project that involved four different parties, including Venus Shell Systems. With guidance from Pia, I had to consider what each party intended to gain from the partnership, and was careful to only promise achievable outcomes. In this instance, the goal was to develop a wound healing cream. Throughout the project I had to maintain strong communication with everyone involved. This was never easy and required extensive effort, but I recognised early these relationships were vital for the success of the project.

Science is about making mistakes and learning from them, trialling new methods and techniques, and working towards novel discoveries. In an industrial-academic collaboration it is important that new results are shared with each party when they occur. However, these findings don’t always match what is desirable for the outlined project. While they may be interesting scientifically, this can make things tricky for industry, so it is vital to have flexible arrangements.

When Pia was trying to find the optimum cultivation conditions for the seaweed she’s been growing, she faced numerous challenges, and experienced “days when 10 things go wrong at once.” But she was able to successfully upscale her seaweed cultivation because all parties remained flexible throughout the process, as they had agreed to modify the project based on experimental outcomes.

Pia and the team at Venus Shell Systems led this flexible approach, and because they were able to follow their experimental results,  they now produce seaweed with twenty percent higher efficiency under these new optimised conditions.   

Academia and industry need to work together

Pia is fortunate because she can see partnerships from both sides. She understands that an academic often needs publications and funding to progress their career. She also sees that it is vital for a business to remain financially competitive and develop commercialisable products. The challenge today is that business and academia are often disconnected. 

  Pia Winberg in one of her company's labs, where seaweed is grown and tested.  © Venus Shell Systems (used with permission)

Pia Winberg in one of her company's labs, where seaweed is grown and tested. © Venus Shell Systems (used with permission)

In reality, the academic sector can be like living in a bubble. This is what I felt during my undergraduate degree. Even though I was trying to seek exposure to industry, it was really difficult - and part of this is cultural. Industry-academia partnerships and collaborations don’t commonly exist. Academics often make suggestions or criticise processes in the world without actually implementing change. This is what drove Pia to pursue an industry career. She was fed up of being a “backseat driver” and knowing what needed to change without actually executing this change. She could see a gap in scientific progress and innovation, and decided to pursue this area. 

Pia took a major risk to establish a business, and it was by no means an easy task. But she did it. She used her networking skills and went through extensive negotiations to get a team of investors on board.  Once again, it was her passion, persistence, and awareness of others that enabled her to succeed. The company began small. She set to work early to foster industry-academia partnerships — aware that the transition to successful collaboration takes time. Smaller projects were outlined and achieved, which helped to establish the strong working relationships that are still active many years later.

Pia has worked consistently to maintain these relationships but has regularly found herself in male dominant and aggressive cultural situations. Sadly, this culture remains a reality within the science sector, both in industry and academia. Pia says, “If you always stick to the higher moral ground and well informed position, then you become a constructive person in the bigger picture and can usually glide past these cultural obstacles.” It is not necessarily a gender game, but more about bringing a different perspective.  

As a scientist and business women, Pia has inspired me to be a strong female leader in the science community and to work towards this cultural shift. Budget cuts continue to reduce funding to research. In turn, industry-academia partnerships are becoming increasingly important. 

It is as a result of Pia’s influence that I have gained an interest in industry partnerships. Through her honesty and her work, she has exposed me to the elements of running a business: from starting up, finding investors, expanding, purchasing equipment and working alongside fellow industry partners and academic collaborators. 

A cultural shift is essential within both sectors to encourage unconventional partnerships to drive innovation. The transition may be slow, however this must be sustained if we are to see any improvement. One day I hope to be able to work as part of other successful industry-academia collaborations and eventually encourage other young undergraduate science student to follow what they love, just as Pia has done for me. 

“The zone between science and industry is the frontier of sustainable progress on environmental, social and economic challenges.” 
- Pia Winberg

Edited by Tessa Evans and Nicola McCaskill