Scientist Profiles: Dr. Edith Lecomte-Norrant

Editor’s Note: Dr. Edith Lecomte-Norrant is the current Head of Innovation/Technology/Sciences at UCB Biopharma in Belgium, where she works introducing new methods for industrialization of pharmaceutical processes. She holds a PhD in Chemical Engineering from ENSIC-CNRS, HDR in Chemical Engineering, worked six years as a National Researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in France. Her work includes the submission of 9 patents, 14 articles, more than 200 technical confidential reports, and presenting more than 35 oral communications at different international conferences. She has worked in several private companies and has international experience in R&D and fine chemistry/pharmaceutical manufacturing plants. Dr. Lecomte-Norrant will be a keynote speaker at the 2017 International Symposium on Green Chemistry (ISGC) in La Rochelle, France. In addition, she will join NESSE on May 18th for a special session at ISGC 2017: “Thriving Careers and Sustainability: A Discussion Panel”. For more information, please visit www.isgc-symposium.com/program-overview/.  Untitled

What motivated you to pursue a career in science?

Firstly, when I was young, I loved mathematics. It was for me a challenge to solve those problems, to the extent it became a game for me. Secondly, I was and I am still very curious about everything. I like to learn, to discover new scientific areas, to understand how everything works…  but I always have the feeling that I do not know anything. This is the reason why, after my engineer studies, I decided to do a PhD to get a higher level of knowledge and to develop my capacities to learn, to develop my creativity. I like challenges!

During my PhD, under the responsibility of Prof. Le Goff (ENSIC – Nancy), who was a person with a lot of ideas and with a passion for science, I really discovered what research was, and I liked it because it is always challenges to solve and to find concrete solutions. During this period, I discovered my creativity to solve technical problems by mixing ideas from different areas. It is the reason why I decided to do research and I applied to work at CNRS (the French Centre National of Scientific Research).

At CNRS I discovered something else: ideas are important, but we need a budget to develop them. Therefore, I decided to move to a new research unit, which had been created to improve the relationship between private and public research. This Mixed Research Unit consisted of 50% public researchers and 50% private researchers coming from Rhone Poulenc (Ex SANOFI). For me it was a fantastic period because I worked with experts in other areas without any budget issues. The target was to develop new methodology, new tools to develop gas/liquid/solid reactions at an industrial scale. I realized that, by working in a multidisciplinary team with different public and private experts, we could do fantastic research in a quick timeframe.

I also discovered that the research in a private company was focused on applications. For me, working on the bridge between fundamental research and the application was a new challenge. Thus I decided to go and work in private company to apply new fundamental concepts and to be more pragmatic.  Also, in a private company we have more opportunity to work in different areas, and to learn more in different subjects. In comparison, on public research you generally become an expert in one topic and stay in that area.

Can you tell us about your current role as Innovation/Technology/Sciences Director at UCB Biopharma?

My current role as Innovation/Technology/Sciences Director aims to introduce new methodology and technology to develop and industrialize new chemical and biological drugs. My idea is to develop a tool box to help researcher’s day to day.

I work with six Research & Development Departments, respectively API (Active Pharmaceutical Ingredient), DP (Drug Product), Analytical Department for both Small and Large Molecules, and with Universities (or start-ups) to help us develop our ideas concerning new technologies and to integrate them in our research department, then in a pilot plant and a manufacturing plant.

When we have a new idea, we take a Master’s student for 6 months to evaluate it and to get the answer for this following question: “Is it the right idea or the wrong one?” Depending on the answer, we either stop it or move on with a PhD student to develop it with the University that has the right expertise. The PhD student can work both at University and at UCB. It depends on the subject and where the best place to do research is (due to equipment, analytical tools, etc.).

Innovation means to create a new technology for UCB that does not exist anywhere else but also to introduce a new technology at UCB which is used by other companies but that UCB has not gotten yet. This latter innovation is at minimum risk. Most of the actions are confidential.

You have impressive record working on industrial management positions. What are some of the challenges you have faced in this aspect of your career?   

The greatest challenge I got was between Aug. 1993 and Aug. 1994. When I started at Rhone Poulenc in January of 1993, I was in charge of the continuous process improvement of four manufacturing plants: two in France, one in the UK and one in the US. Unfortunately, in August 1993, an explosion occurred at the US plant: some people died and some were drastically injured. I was named project manager to find the underlying reasons of the explosion and to design a new safe process in three months. I remember I was told: “you have unlimited resources, open budget, but make sure there are no incidents”.  I created a team of 40 people in one week, which comprised experts in chemistry, chemical engineering, analytical, safety, corrosion, etc.

It was a big and stressful challenge because we did not know the reasons of the explosion. Furthermore, to increase the complexity, Rhone Poulenc bought this manufacturing plant one year before and we had no access to the data concerning the development of the process for this intermediate compound. We had to develop everything in a safe way in three months: main reaction, by-product reactions, analytical methods to follow the reactions, kinetic of reactions, stability of compounds, etc., in order to understand the reasons of the explosion.

I remember we did the first reactions in a “special bunker”, a special safety lab in order to define safe operating conditions. In three months, due to the impressive work of the team, we had understood the reasons of the explosion and we had designed a new safe reactor with a controlled system to detect the presence of the dangerous by-product. It was my first experience in PAT (Process Analytical Technology). When I went to the US in December 1993 to present the data and the design of the new unit, they asked me to take charge of starting the future unit and to negotiate with OSHA the authorization to restart the previous one.

It was a new big challenge that I accepted. It was an important human experience to work with operators who had lived the accident. In fact, even if you know that safety is first, you are not totally aware about all the impacts and consequences an explosion has on people. The biggest challenge I had was to convince operators that we had understood all the reasons of the explosion and we had put in place all the necessary controls to work in a safe way. It was a problem of trust and it took time to regain it from them.

We restarted it August 1994 without any problems. Since then I kept a nice relationship with the operators during my stay in the US. I think that it was the biggest challenge I had in my career. It was an important human experience for me. Keep in mind that science is important but safety is more important.

From your perspective, how has the incorporation of green chemistry in industrial R&D evolved in recent years?   

In my own opinion, I observed that in most of cases Green Chemistry in the industrial world has been introduced mainly:

  • By new laws in environment which induces important cost for treatment of wastes.
  • By information about the consequences of the pollution on health.

For both these reasons, private companies had to adapt their processes with innovative solutions to reduce the cost of treatment of waste which becomes more and more important. Now Green chemistry is included in their policy: it is a label for potential customers. It is the reason why the R&D department takes into account this point to find innovative solutions for the development of green processes.

However, the problems and solutions are quite different for large chemical process and fine chemistry/pharmaceutical process. Large chemical productions are often manufactured by using a continuous process: by recycling solvents, catalysts, etc.  Generally, they measure the carbon footprint of each step. Thus, it is a point that is evaluated and they are looking for an innovative process in a safer way by reducing their waste, which induces a reduction of operating expenses.

Concerning fine chemistry and pharmaceutical companies, they have the habit to use batch processes. Up until now, they were very conservative due to regulatory affairs. Today this industry moves slowly by adopting innovative technologies such as micro/milli-reactors (process intensification), coupled with physical activation (photo chemistry, microwaves, electrochemistry, etc.), which generally induces a huge reduction of wastes. Furthermore, working in a continuous way gives us more flexibility concerning the size of the “batch”, and we avoid the destruction of good products that are not used. A typical example is a clinical trial: we need to manufacture a small amount of compound and the continuous process gives us this flexibility, unlike the batch process where the amount of compound depends on the size of reactor. So now researchers are aware about green chemistry practices and they try to develop innovative green processes, but the first priority is the quality for patients.

Fostering innovation is a key role on your current professional field.  You have worked to develop a student’s program at UCB and you are currently in charge of the Scientific External Partnership with Universities. What has this experience been like?  

Being in charge of Innovation/Technology/Sciences, my job is to develop a tool box to help researchers creating new processes for new drugs with higher quality for patients at a lower cost. When you develop an innovative idea, you take a risk from a budget and resources point of view. In order to reduce these risks, I introduced a student’s program at UCB. What does it mean?

It is a master-student who does the evaluation of the idea during 6 months. So the evaluation of the idea is done at low cost. Furthermore, if the idea is interesting, we go on with the development with a PhD, or a Post-Doc with a Professor at University who is an expert in this area. We reduce the risk of failure as we have an expert to help us developing the idea. So the student’s program is composed with master-student, PhD and post-Doc with a lot of relationships with different Universities. In 2016, we had more than 30 master students, 25 PhD and 3 Post-Docs in TSO (Technical Supply Operations).

Sometimes, I take several PhDs for the same project with several professors from different Universities who have different areas of expertise to solve a problem or to develop a new tool. Each PhD has his own objective but he must work in a team. It is a good experience for everybody. I often observed a silo between chemical and biological experts. It is unfortunate because we can learn from each other and together we can find very innovative solutions.

The student program has another advantage: we have time to evaluate the student during his trainee. It is a good opportunity to hire our new researchers from this pool.  In order to create a good relationship between Universities and UCB and to motivate students to apply for a master or a PhD at UCB, I teach in 5 different Universities, in each for about 2.5 days:

  • 1 day concerning industrial cases that I had to solve as Chemical Engineer during my professional life
  • 1 day concerning Innovation in industrial process (my own vision): what will happen in a close future: I mix innovation in chemical with biological process
  • 0.5 day: PAT: Process Analytical Technology.

What advice would you give to early-career professionals seeking to work in industry?   

For post-docs or researchers, the most important qualities you must have are to be flexible, mobile and adaptable. Why?  Today, we live in a world that changes continuously.

First example: You can enter a company that has a strategy and policy. Tomorrow the company is bought by another one and the strategy and policy change. Even if you stay in the same office for the same job, you must adapt to the new strategy and policy of the new company.

Second example: You can be hired for your expertise in a certain area. Tomorrow, for any reason, the company decides to stop this activity, so you must find a solution: either to develop a new expertise in another area in the company or to leave the company to practice your expertise in another one. It is a problem of flexibility.

Third example: you can have a big opportunity to develop your career in the same company but in other country. What do you do? Are you mobile? Are you adaptable to the new environment in a foreign country? If you are mobile and adaptable you can go for this journey.

Finally, nowadays as a researcher you must follow all new discoveries, new trends that are done in your area and take in account all other advancement from other areas. You will work in a multidisciplinary team and you must adapt yourself to these new technologies.

Here is an example concerning the evolution of communication: in the past we communicated by letters, then by fax, after by email, etc. What kind of new system will it be tomorrow? We are now talking about Industry 4.0, Internet of Things, robots in the laboratory to do our experiments. All these new tools change the ways of working and we must be flexible, adaptable, and mobile to use them. The future starts now, and if you want to know the future, dream it and create it for a better chemistry and for a better life. The only thing that remains constant about technology, sciences, and even the world is the fact that it is constantly changing. 

Thank you Dr. Lecomte-Norrant for your valuable participation. We look forward to continuing our discussion in La Rochelle!

ISGC is the leading event for scientists and industries to share their findings on sustainable chemistry. ISGC 2017 will take place in La Rochelle, France from May 16th-19th. NESSE will be present with activities for early-career professionals seeking to be part of a sustainable future.