Thursday, 12 February 2015

The Cutting Edge of Mass Spectrometry

Originally written in August 2007...

To dream the impossible dream

One of my good friends asked me the other day when I was going to post another rant on facebook, which made me wonder whether perhaps I have a tendency to start frothing at the mouth rather too often. But it also made me realise that I do have a bit of a something brewing inside, and that for the good of mankind maybe it would be best to let it out before it becomes too toxic...

As quite a few of you know, I work for a small company and we build mass spectrometers. Big ones, small ones, extremely clever ones, and every now and then, ones that try and solve a problem that's never been solved. And that's where I am now - in the early days of a three year R+D project, of the variety that tries to do something that's never been done. Only our customer didn't actually mention that it had never been done when he asked us to attempt it. In fact, up until quite recently, he gave us the distinct impression that he knew what he was talking about.

Our brief is to spend the next 3 years carrying out R+D and eventually building a new instrument to detect very low levels of a variety of interesting compounds. The customer has provided us with a list of 9 'target compounds', with the usual proviso that they'd quite like it if they could detect, well, pretty much anything as it turns out. The 9 on the list are just the the ones they REALLY want to see.

We've been tackling the first stage of this with our usual suck-it-and-see approach, so have simply been running some calibrated standards of the target compounds through our test instrument, just so we know where we're starting from. Our customer helpfully told us "Ooh, you might find that one a bit tricky. We find it very tricky". "Tricky?" we thought. Pah! We eat tricky for breakfast. So we had a go, and, to no-one's great surprise, we saw absolutely nothing. Since in this instance we weren't entirely sure what we were expecting to see, we went trawling through journals, books, papers and (of course) the trusty internet. And we found that the entire scientific community appears completely convinced of the futility of trying to detect this compound using GC-MS (the technique our instrument uses). In fact, we came across entire research groups who were developing new analytical techniques solely because this particular compound can't be detected by GC-MS. At this stage we decided a phone-call to our customer was in order. It went something like this...

Us: You remember that compound that you said we'd find tricky?
Them: Oooh, yes. It's very tricky.
Us: Well, we're struggling to detect it at all, and were wondering what conditions you used, so we can try repeating your results
Them: I've never actually detected it. It's very tricky.
Us: Ah
Them: But I know a man who thinks he might have done, once, but now he's not sure
Us: Hmmm.

So it currently looks as though we'll be spending the next three years trying to do something widely agreed to be impossible. Motivational isn't it?

To fight the unbeatable foe

Meanwhile, we're also applying for funding from the Home Office to have a Clever Idea that will allow us to develop an instrument that will detect all the kinds of things that people who care about Interesting Things might be interested in. (This is the part where I might start frothing).

The Home Office arranged a 'networking' day, where they invited the great, the good, and the slightly confused from british industry and academia to come and be told what the problem was. All these bright sparks could then exchange ideas, form collaborations and generally be fruitful. Experts in interesting statistical analyses could tell hardware bods how to extract the last drop of information from their instrumentation, and all would be splendid. Except the Home Office provided no name badges, no lists of delegates, no lists of companies represented, no information whatsoever about who was there and why. Nor did they provide any time or opportunity for the assembled ranks of British R+D to actually talk to each other. And thus they all went home again, none the wiser, and with no new contacts.

We persevered, made contact with some people we've collaborated with before, discovered, to our surprise, that they'd been at the same event and we'd not seen each other. They have rather more, shall we say, commercial nous than us, and we have considerably more unusual technical ideas than them, so together we put forward a proposal to the HO. This met with approval and we moved through from the first 150-odd proposals to the final 20. At which point we were sent the terms and conditions of the contract the HO would like to hold us to.

Since my boss is like me, only more so, he decided to read all 60-pages of legalese. And buried deep within this, he discovered that the HO would demand, as part of the contract, all of the Intellectual Property Rights of the Clever Idea. Now, we have only once, ever, in the history of the company sold our IPR, and that was for a rather odd contract many years ago that wasn't for a mass spectrometer so we didn't care if we never built another one. We occasionally agree to allow the customer the user rights on the IPR, so if they want to build another one of whatever we've sold them, they can. But we charge a hefty premium for that, and they have to have been heavily involved in the design process. We certainly wouldn't want to sign away rights to a new idea that's right at the heart of our core business.

But it got worse than that. They didn't just want the IPR on the Clever New Bit that they'd have been funding. They wanted 'all background IPR' - so all our designs for every part of a mass spectrometer. The very essence of what we do. The amassed knowledge and expertise of 150 man-years in the mass spectrometry industry. Why? So that they can take the designs and have them made by the cheapest sub-contractor without having to pay us any royalties. Basically our dear government wants to systematically and deliberately destroy innovation in british industry just to make sure they get 'the best deal for the taxpayer'.

We've told them in no uncertain terms that we will not be continuing to tender for this contract unless they change to our re-written terms and conditions. Sometimes you've just got to say "Enough" to the government...

To bear with unbearable sorrow

Update in February 2015: It took us four years, instead of three, but we did manage to build the Miracle Instrument. AND we managed to detect the "quite tricky" compound - the first people ever to do so using GCMS apparently. But we weren't able to publish anything about it, because it was secret. And then there was a financial crash, and a change of government, and the funding was cut, and mass spectrometry suddenly became "unfashionable" for detecting "tricky" compounds. There were newer, shinier, sexier ideas. They didn't work, but that's not the point, they were shiny! With better acronyms! And new! So now, 5 years after being "ahead of the curve" (I quote the government's lead scientist on the subject) and a better analytical tool than anything else available, our instrument is sitting in the corner of a lab gathering dust while newer, shinier, more-excitingly acronymed techniques receive funding, and there still isn't a commercially available instrument to do what we did.

And enterprises of great pith and moment 
With this regard their currents turn awry, 
And lose the name of action.

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