Breaking the bonds of a traditional chemical career
Kazim Agha loved life in the laboratory, but he vividly recalls how difficult it was to think outside of this setting. That became necessary in 2002, just as he was completing his PhD in chemistry under the supervision of Prof. Masad Damha at McGill University and began contemplating career prospects that would enable him to support his growing young family. As it turned out, the experience provided him with an altogether different educational experience.
Today, Agha is a partner and patent agent in the Toronto offices of Ridout & Maybee LLP, where he deals with topics that range from basic chemistry to pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, and clean technology. The intricacies of intellectual property might seem far removed from the intricacies of science, he acknowledges, yet he finds himself applying the same interest that originally drew him into chemistry, along with a skill set he developed from pursuing that interest.
“As an undergrad I enjoyed chemistry because it tickled my brain,” he says. “I found it interesting to see how things work, to understand how they work at a molecular level.”
Although he had benefited from the help and insights of many different mentors, he encountered the bounds of their perspective at the confines of academia or traditional chemical industries. Eventually he turned to CIC member, Kimberly McManus, who is among the leaders in Canada’s patent agent community.
“I got some feedback from her and some really interesting information,” recalls Agha. “What intrigued me was that she was not just looking at chemistry.”
Rather than moving directly into the intellectual property field, he joined Raylo Chemicals (then a part of Degussa and later Evonik), which was looking for a senior research chemist to manage their oligonucleotide projects. He worked with mentors like Zhongxin Zhou and Robin Nicol (both now at Gilead Pharmaceuticals), who brought him into the development and manufacturing of small-molecule active pharmaceutical ingredients, including validation and pre-approval inspection preparation of one of the first oligonucleotides to receive regulatory approval.
After a positive experience with Raylo, Agha decided to take the even more daring step of dipping into the household savings to become a patent trainee. Within two years he had passed a notoriously difficult set of exams on his first try. After moving from a couple of different firms, he finally wound up in his current position at Ridout & Maybee in 2010.
At that point, having made the transition that had once been so elusive, he became more involved with the CIC Toronto Local Section, where he was in a position to speak with others who harboured similar ambitions.
“We started coming across people who had moved into all kinds of different areas — investment, marketing, taxation, government, environment,” he says. “Meeting them can get other chemists to think beyond their immediate research and look at the larger skill set they’ve created for themselves.”
When we look at ourselves from that perspective, he adds, it becomes possible to see the value you can bring to other types of workplaces.
“There’s so much that one can do but we just limit ourselves,” he explains. “It’s not because we intentionally do so, but it’s usually from our lack of knowledge of what opportunities are out there.”