We spoke to ETERNAL project coordinator Pablo Ferrer Pérez just as he was gathering up his papers and his thoughts at the end of an energizing and inspirational two-day project General Assembly meeting hosted by project industrial partner AstraZeneca at their major manufacturing and European packaging centre at Macclesfield, UK. “It’s been an amazing couple of days. These meetings are about achieving a happy balance of keeping project management matters on track and getting bright, intelligent, imaginative people together to kick off their creativity. For me, that’s the essence of research collaboration.”
The ETERNAL project has just reached the end of the first of its four years, and Pablo has reasons to look back with satisfaction on progress to date and optimism for the period ahead. “During the first twelve months of the project's life, the level of interest and the good work among the project partners has been self-evident. We have worked very hard collectively to meet all our internal and external deadlines and done so with a great team spirit.”
Clearly Pablo sees effective project management as important, to ensure that the right people do the right thing at the right time. “I think of it like the glue holding the people together with the quality and objectives, on time and on budget.” However, he also believes the seeds of a successful project are set even before the active work phase begins. “Working with stakeholders to set realistic goals, budgets, and schedules, and crucially to align the project’s strategic priorities and objectives with those of business and funders, are key steps to making a compelling proposal.” This process involves estimating costs, managing resources, and evaluating risks.
Now that ETERNAL is up and running, its reporting structures and meetings are designed to provide a managed process, which encourages partners to work proactively to mitigate known risks rather than reactively chase problems. With a clear focus on their objectives, project partners can better understand their priorities at any point in time and spot any changes in the risk factors in good time to do something about it. “With a strong project plan, our tasks are aligned with clear milestones and high-quality deliverables, so everyone knows where we are headed.”
“Overall, my job is to deliver value for money,” reflects Pablo. “To the EU for funding us, to the project partners through the innovation enabled by funding, and ultimately, remembering where our funding comes from, to society at large. In the case of ETERNAL, societal benefit is interwoven with our consciously environmental ambition to establish safe and sustainable pharmaceutical lifecycles by design.”
Happily, the ETERNAL partners seem to be working to make Pablo’s job, if not easy, then about as straightforward as coordinating any large multi-partite collaboration can be. “When people encounter a challenge (as is inevitable with research) they flag it up, face up to it, and then set about finding a way to overcome the issues.” As an example, Ferrer cites work done by researchers at the University of Saarland who are using genome engineering to optimize a drug-producing fermentation reaction. After running into technical difficulties with their original choice of drug producing strain, the Saarland team have been able to successfully retarget towards removal of biosynthetic genes and gene clusters responsible for toxic side products in an alternative bacterial strain.
All six ETERNAL case study teams are all working this way, and thanks to excellent communications across work packages dealing with the early-stage research steps and those planning ahead towards scale-up and consideration of the environmental impacts and benefits of the new process concepts being developed, the prospects look exciting for the remainder of the project. Technical partners in WP1 for example, have been able to use the Britest process understanding tools in WP3 to communicate their ideas and process designs in ways that help transfer knowledge effectively. These have already been picked up by those working in WP4 to understand where to look for process emission to water in their risk assessments.
“It’s exciting to see project management, technical excellence, and commitment to sustainability coming together,” concludes Pablo Ferrer. “I’m looking forward to the next chapters of the story.”