Professor Ali Tavassoli has bridged the disciplines of Chemistry and Biology to pursue commercial impact from cutting edge research at the University of Southampton. He currently leads an interdisciplinary team of scientists developing novel chemical tools that will inspire new therapeutics, expanding on a research platform he co-developed in a five-year spell at Penn State University in the U.S.A.
In Pennsylvania, he saw first-hand how research can be translated into spinouts, as a project he contributed to at an early stage went on to be commercialised and sold for over $5bn. Now a Professor in Chemical Biology, he is encouraging others to explore engagement with industry as an Enterprise Champion for the Department of Chemistry.
Ali was born in Iran and arrived in England at the age of 11, when a rebellious nature at a new school in Bristol was soothed by a love for chemistry. “I found science and realised what an amazing thing it is,” he says. “Chemistry was particularly appealing to me, it was captivating how we have the ability to manipulate things on an atomic scale. I discovered that we can choose to make or break bonds and create new molecules.”
He chose to study Chemistry at the University of Bristol and soon decided that he would commit his life to research, shifting his energy into a subsequent PhD in Organic Chemistry at the University of Reading. “It’s a fantastic thing to do, to dedicate oneself to science,” he explains. “When you dedicate yourself to that level of research into a scientific problem, the level of reward you get out of it is immense.”
A research post as a Postdoctoral Fellow followed at the University of Sussex where Ali advanced his skills as a synthetic chemist, producing compounds that would help understand the mechanism of a key enzyme. The experience triggered an aspiration to switch his discipline from Organic Chemistry into Biology, a move that would be realised in 2001 through a trek across the Atlantic to the U.S.A.’s Penn State University.
The five-year experience in Pennsylvania introduced Ali to interdisciplinary research and inspired a technology that is still being exploited in Southampton to this day. “I have such fond memories of my time in that lab,” he says. “It was really eye-opening that chemistry could be so diverse and see how that knowledge could be applied to solve so many problems.” Some of the research that Ali contributed to as a Postdoctoral Fellow was spun out from the University to form Anacor Pharmaceuticals, a business that has since been bought by medical multinational Pfizer for $5.2bn.
In his time at Penn State, Ali co-developed a platform that can generate and screen libraries of hundreds of millions of compounds in bacteria. The research focused on protein-protein interactions, which play a pivotal role in all aspects of cellular function, including cell cycle progression and the development of disease. “We developed a platform to allow us to identify molecules that control these interactions. By targeting one interaction within the thousands that are going on at any one time, you potentially have a whole new way of targeting disease,” he explains. “It was thought to be almost impossible when we first started, but you can find inhibitors when you are able to make and screen such large quantities of compounds overnight.”
Ali transferred the platform to the University of Southampton in 2006 and has optimised the innovation further over the past decade, with eight industry-funded projects now taking advantage of the technology. He received the European Association for Chemical and Molecular Sciences’ medal for European Young Chemist in 2008 and became a Professor of Chemical Biology in 2015.
As an Enterprise Champion for Chemistry, Ali is constantly seeking to draw academics and companies together and has himself tapped into Future Worlds’ business mentoring as he’s explored his research options.
“I’ve been involved in a lot of commercialisation activity and want to share my experience to help people going down the same route,” he says. “We’ve had molecules that have been patented and licensed, and are currently trying to spin out a University innovation. If you’re looking for help commercialising an idea or want to be put in touch with industry, then come and see me.” You can get in touch with Ali using the contact form on this page.
Ali believes that researchers and academics have a lot to gain by engaging with businesses and is encouraging them to explore this route through the Future Worlds Medicine initiative. “Working with industry allows you to calibrate and check the importance of what you are doing,” he says.
“Industry will bring a very goal-oriented outlook onto research – they are driven by a need to deliver and deliver quickly. As an academic, I enjoy blue sky research but also find it useful to discuss my projects with industry to make sure we are driving towards something important at the end of it all.”