The importance of continuous improvement in the drug discovery process: A conversation with Étienne Rochette

April 21, 2022

The importance of continuous improvement in the drug discovery process

A conversation with Étienne Rochette

An Associate Team Leader at OmegaChem for the past year, Étienne Rochette sees himself as a positive and collaborative leader. Shortly after his arrival at Omega, the Ph.D. graduate in chemistry from Université Laval was able to optimize the processes in place to make the work of his team considerably easier and more efficient. At work and in life, Étienne is never afraid to leave his comfort zone and find creative and innovative solutions to complex problems.

What is your background? 

I have been working at OmegaChem for 3 years. I did my bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and Ph.D. in chemistry at Université Laval. Just before my thesis defense, I received a job offer at Omega in medicinal chemistry. In December of the same year, I was transferred to the process department.

Since the summer of 2021, I have been an Associate Team Leader at Omega. As a team leader, I directly manage the relationship and communication with the client and ensure that their projects are completed according to their goals, but also encourage the professional growth of my team members. I try to ensure that they are continually given challenges and that their work benefits them, our client and OmegaChem. I'm kind of in the middle of everything! It's stimulating because the challenges are varied.

 

What is your leadership style?

I always try to be positive and look on the bright side, no matter what happens. As a leader, you need to solve problems and work around constraints. In an interview with Marie Bérubé, a senior researcher at NuChem Sciences, she mentioned that she sees people a bit like Ferraris, and that they should be driving on racetracks, not gravel roads. I see myself as a person who must build and maintain this racetrack so that my colleagues can work and face challenges at their level. I try to support my team members, who are excellent researchers, to achieve their goals. I also try to showcase everyone's good work. That's how you build a team that likes each other.

 

What are the challenges of your job?

When I first joined OmegaChem, we were beginning to have issues related to equipment usage as the group was growing steadily. To remedy the situation, I set up an equipment reservation system with the Director of Continuous Improvement and other colleagues. It allows me to make graphic visualizations of how we use our equipment and to justify investments to management. For example, we have two 10-liter reactors, but we noticed through the system that one was used much more than the other. Thanks to this information, we were able to ask the researchers why they did not use the second one frequently or at all, and thus modify the less popular equipment.

A few years ago, we also noticed that the majority of people in medicinal chemistry were doing hydrogenation reactions (a type of reaction that uses hydrogen balloons). While the process went very well in general, in some cases we had reactions that could take several days. One day, thanks to a customer project that required a lot of these types of reactions, we had the opportunity to improve the process. So, I took the initiative to order small reactors that can be pressurized, but with a system that allows them to be filled much more quickly. These reactors are now available to the medicinal chemistry group through our equipment reservation system. What used to take us half a day now only takes a few minutes.

We also have great challenges in the field of flow chemistry, a modern technique that allows us to perform chemical reactions requiring extreme conditions more easily and safely. This is why, in collaboration with other colleagues, we are currently working to develop our infrastructure and expertise in flow chemistry and have, even recently, had our first successes on some of our clients' projects in this area.

 

I notice that it is important for you to optimize processes.

Yes, we often work under tight deadlines and on multiple projects simultaneously. So, the more practical and user-friendly a method of working is, the more it will be used. In my role as team leader, I try to make everything easier for everyone.

For clients, it's beneficial to do business with a company that is constantly optimizing its processes and equipment. In a CRO (Contract Research Organization), we have major clients in the pharmaceutical industry who are among the best in the world. We want to offer high quality services with top scientists to meet their needs.

 

What attracted you to OmegaChem?

In Quebec City, if you want to do world-class advanced chemistry and have exciting challenges, OmegaChem is the company for you. Joining Omega allowed me to make a quick and easy transition from academia to industry. And by working in my region, I was able to stay close to my family.

We have a lot to learn from our fellow researchers who have 10 or 15 years of experience. When you leave university, you think you know everything, but on the contrary, we don’t!

 

How do you see the arrival of NuChem Sciences?

I see it very positively. There is a great synergy between the two companies. We are happy to be able to bring our expertise to their customers, and vice versa. I think the arrival of NuChem Sciences will allow us to have a larger and more complete service offering.

 

What is it like to be a professional drug hunter?

It's cool to think that, in the long run, our work can have a big impact on human health. That's a motivation for me.

If in 10 years, my work has helped sick people, that will be the cherry on top.

 

What is your personal motto or mantra?

“If it were easy, it would already be done.”

In academia, this is even more true. We do the easy things quickly. You work on the hard things the longest. That's part of being a scientist and it's even more rewarding when you solve the problems.

Another way of thinking that I try to apply on a daily basis is: "to make good decisions, you need good data". In process chemistry, this is all the more important because there are many risks, especially in relation to safety.

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