a product of Scientific American Custom Media
Changing Lanes

Changing Lanes

Companies thrive when workers are willing to give up their comfort zones and learn from each other

It takes a village of varied talents to raise a successful biotechnology firm, and it helps when the villagers speak each other’s languages. Scientists and engineers often work directly on teams with other employees who lack a strong science background, and this collaboration is easier when everyone knows a little about each other’s professional challenges and how to discuss them. More broadly, a company works together better when everyone’s contributions to its mission are better understood.

Achieving this level of understanding doesn’t always come easy. Non-technical staff might easily be bewildered by the overwhelming complexity and quick advances in today’s biomedical research. Scientists and engineers, in turn, may have little experience in talking and collaborating with a diverse group of employees in finance, information technology, marketing or manufacturing. The technical staff could also be thoroughly unfamiliar with the rapidly evolving world of biotechnology-related businesses, such as the pharmaceutical industry and clinical care. These gaps call for cross-disciplinary education, either on the job or in more formal training, says Stephen Sammut, a venture capitalist focusing on healthcare in emerging markets and a senior fellow in healthcare management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

A certain level of scientific literacy is required, but so is literacy in other areas, particularly for those in leadership roles, Sammut says. The Biotechnology Entrepreneurship Boot Camp, which has taken place for 11 years at the annual meeting of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), displays the breadth of business literacy issues facing biotechnology firms. The two-day training program covers opportunity assessment, pitching investors, capitalization, partnering, market strategies, pricing and reimbursement strategies, regulatory planning, intellectual property, team-building, corporate social responsibility and even bioethics, among other topics.

Whether you come from a scientific or a business background, “the learning challenge is integrating all of this,” says Sammut, cofounder of the Boot Camp. “In biotechnology, these things are all incredibly integrated. You really cannot think about intellectual property without considering patent protection, without considering regulatory implications, without considering reimbursement, and all of those have significant implications for your market strategy.”

While such courses focus on a wide breadth of business components for company leadership, Sammut and other training veterans emphasize that all employees in biotechnology can benefit from interdisciplinary knowledge—especially when they can pick it up directly from those working in the other disciplines.

Teaching the Non-Technical
“If the last time people studied biology and chemistry was in high school, they really need to become more familiar with the process and the vocabulary of biochemistry and molecular biology,” says Sammut. “Those are very important and hard-earned disciplines. You’re not going to pick them up overnight. But having said that, you have to start somewhere.” He suggests that those seeking to boost their scientific literacy check out the programs for non-scientists offered by BIO and other groups.

“If you can free yourself up to go to one of these two- to three-day programs, accidentally or purposely leave your cellphone at home, do the pre-reading assignments and really open your mind, you can get comfortable with a lot of concepts relatively quickly,” he says. “It doesn’t mean that you can develop any kind of scientific judgement but it may get you to the point where you can formulate questions, or at least sit down with an expert in the field and talk about what needs clarification.”

Another good option for people entering the industry without much science exposure is to take the free and high-quality online courses given by organizations such as edX and Coursera, suggests Steve Casper, dean of the School of Applied Life Sciences at the Keck Graduate Institute (KGI) in Claremont, California.

Although previous science experience probably helps anyone employed in biotechnology, it’s not a requirement for most of those who work outside the labs, says Karen Anderson, senior vice president for human resources at Alnylam Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Job applicants “don’t necessarily have to have a science background, but they absolutely have to have a love of science,” Anderson says. “They should be curious and should have begun the journey of being self-taught.” At her company, “The people we hire are curious about the science and the landscape and where it’s going,” she adds. “We also see a lot of individuals who have dedicated themselves to life sciences, even if they’re a finance person or an HR person.” In a way, it becomes a lifestyle: “Once you’re in that life sciences work, you kind of get hooked.”

While many biotech firms do little to help employees broaden their knowledge beyond their job silos, Alynlam initiates the scientific education process immediately. On a hiree’s first day, he or she gets a quick overview of RNA interference (RNAi, the process underlying all of the company’s investigational drugs) and an app with an online RNAi tutorial. “At the 90-day mark, we do a deeper dive into RNAi, with a further tutorial by a couple of senior scientists,” Anderson says. In addition, Alnylam holds workshops on topics such as drug development, and opens its meetings with its scientific advisory board to all employees, who can listen as outside experts debate the firm’s research directions.

Many biotechnology companies also turn to external training firms such as BioTech Primer of Baltimore, Maryland, which specializes in biotechnology training for business employees without a science background. BioTech Primer’s instructors work in industry “and can tell their war stories to illustrate how companies get a product from the lab into the marketplace,” says Stacey Franklin, founder and CEO. “We also spend a lot of time keeping current with the science, which is always moving forward at lightning speed.”

The classes begin with the basics, for people who haven’t studied it since high school, but quickly move into the science, discovery and development processes used by the biotech industry. Non-scientists walk away better able to communicate with their colleagues and clients.

“People move around in a company and companies are always acquiring new technology,” Franklin says. “With each move and each acquisition comes the challenge of learning. Those who have been in the industry for a while also attend because our instruction provides a framework in which they can connect the knowledge they have with the new knowledge they now require.”

In one class, she says, the lead attorney for a major biopharmaceutical firm sat next to a manufacturing employee with a high school education. The attorney had never been exposed to manufacturing operations and was full of questions. “It’s those interactions that make our courses so valuable,” she says. “Everyone learns from our instructors and each other.”

Learning beyond Straight Science
“Technical people are trained to think technically: As long as you’ve got the best technology, that’s all that’s important,” says Arthur Boni, a technology and biotechnology entrepreneur and professor of entrepreneurship at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “It’s a revelation to a lot of them that creating value in the marketplace can be even more important.”

That’s just one way in which filling in the interdisciplinary gaps is a different exercise for scientists and engineers. With these employees, “a strong science background is necessary to be effective in a science-based industry, but it’s not sufficient,” says Casper. “You need to learn more about how the science is translated into society, the business of science and some of the ethical issues.” His school’s mission is “to take scientists and give them the training experience—especially experiential, team-based learning—to make them more effective in industry,” Casper says. “Some of our students go to R&D in industry, but in the vast majority of jobs they’re doing something else, such as program management, business development, operations or consulting.” For these roles, Casper says, people with technical training need to learn both hard and soft skills—among them, collaborating with people who might have wildly different backgrounds and skills. “You can’t just be a smart person; you also need to learn how to work effectively with people on teams,” he says.

Grasping other professional languages is the key to interdisciplinary teamwork. “You need to be able to translate your ideas effectively into another person’s language rather than forcing them into your language,” Caspar points out. At KGI, learning by working in interdisciplinary teams “is our secret sauce, although I don’t think it’s a secret,” says Casper. “We do all sorts of team-based learning projects with clients.” In one example, a group of students worked with Caltech scientists on treatment for the eye condition known as dry macular degeneration, interacting not only with the scientists but also with experts on clinical trials and regulatory requirements. These projects represent an investment for the school, he adds wryly, since a professor might spend a fifth of his or her teaching time leading one team with five students.

Another learning model is offered by a joint program between Keck and the Indian biotechnology firm Biocon. At the Biocon Academy in Bangalore, which trains young technical graduates for jobs in industry, the 16-week blended learning program combines eight Keck courses given online with experiential learning at a Biocon manufacturing facility. This was an eye-opening way for Keck to explore another means of partnering with companies, Casper says.

Boni, who cofounded the Biotechnology Entrepreneurship Boot Camp with Sammut and leads classes on healthcare innovation and translational medicine, emphasizes the advantages of learning interdisciplinary skills within a group of students with a wide range of interests. “We get a very interdisciplinary team of engineers, scientists, business people and policy people looking at the same issues,” he says. “You need to get the technical folks as well as the MBAs working together on one problem, like developing a commercialization strategy. They get into debates and discussions. They basically learn from each other and come up with a more creative solution.”

Success in biotechnology requires a team effort, and educational programs should reflect that need, says Chris Lowe, director of the Institute of Biotechnology at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. The institute’s Bioscience Enterprise graduate program attracts a highly diverse mix of people “who want to change the world,” Lowe says, adding that the course places a heavy emphasis on team projects in which students interact closely with industry. Completing this program “is very different from doing a usual MBA,” says director Linda Allan. For one thing, relatively little of it is taught by academics. Instead, each year more than 100 industry experts give presentations and mentor students in professional practice assignments, offering realistic perspectives about what it’s actually like to work in the field.

Business training “has to be very practical,” agrees Benny Zeevi, a managing general partner at TelAviv Venture Partners and founder of the Executive Program for Biotechnology and Medical Device Entrepreneurs and Managers at Tel Aviv University’s business school. “You need to have case studies and specific examples, like when you should file a patent to protect your intellectual property or how you perform due diligence or competitive analysis.”

Biotechnology educators also emphasize the need to keep in mind country-by-country issues within a global industry. Although science is similar around the world, “the markets, the clinical settings and the reimbursement settings are different,” Boni notes. Exposure to these commercial aspects might be particularly important for U.S. biotechnology firms that want to do business in other countries. For instance, companies making medical devices and drugs increasingly carry out trials and bring their products to market first in Europe, Africa or Australia, Boni says.

There’s one point in particular that all these training experts agree is critical for every biotechnology professional to grasp, regardless of background or role: The greatest unmet need for learning is in helping the public at large understand the industry’s challenges and accomplishments.

“Letting your friends and neighbors know what is going on is the responsibility of everybody in biotech,” says Sammut, “because most of the issues surrounding what we’re doing eventually become political, and people need to be informed as to what’s going on, and right now they’re not. We’re all ambassadors in this industry.”

  • A Guided Tour

    Enhanced with a new guidebook and region-specific ratings, the 2016 Scorecard ventures deeper than ever to track down the latest in biotech innovation