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Big Fish Help Out the Smaller Fish in the Life Sciences Pond

Xconomy National — 

In spite of the abundance of PhDs, MDs, JDs, and MBAs in biotech and pharma, we all know that on-the-job learning is really how this industry is built. Nobody goes to university to learn how to be a great CEO or manager, and there aren’t any courses in grad school where budding researchers can learn the way a pharmaceutical company operates.

That’s why it’s good to hear about the industry experience program started by the MassGeneral Postdoc Association (MGPA) with help from MGH and the MassBio Ed Foundation. It’s a grown-up version of the “take your child to work day” in which postdocs at MGH-affiliated laboratories—there’s about 1,100—have a chance to see what it’s like to work in a biotechnology or pharmaceutical company. They meet executives and scientists, tour offices and the labs, and get to ask questions about lifestyle, freedom to publish, and the various career tracks one can follow at a company. “Industry is this huge black box that academic trainees haven’t been able to see into,” says Adnan Abu-Yousif, a postdoctoral fellow at MGH who founded the program.

The idea of visiting a company for a day came to Abu-Yousif in early 2009, when he was co-chair of the postdoc association and realized there weren’t a lot of resources for people researching and considering, but not yet sure of, making the leap to industry. “We’re all scientists and we make our decisions based on observation,” says Abu-Yousif. So, he reasoned, a good way to find out if a career in pharma or biotech would be worthwhile could be to see that for himself.

He pitched the idea to folks at the MassBio Ed Foundation, and pretty soon they were approaching local companies to see who wanted to host. Three pilot rounds of visits, each involving a dozen or so postdocs, have already taken place. One of the visits already led to a collaboration between an MGH postdoc and New England Biolabs.

The program has now expanded, and this month it launched a web site on which companies and postdocs may sign up to be paired based on common interests. Already signed-up are AstraZeneca, EMD-Serono, and New England Biolabs–the three companies that participated in the pilot phase-as well as Merck Research Laboratories, Merrimack Pharmaceuticals, Novartis, and Quanterix. I’m told several other big names in Boston are in the process of coming on board.

The industry’s warm reception of the postdoc association’s program—which entails not only opening up company doors, but sharing information about research and operations—is in line with a broader trend noticed by Rohit Shukla, chief executive of The Larta Institute, a non-profit organization that helps commercialize government-funded technologies. Shukla says that, over the years, he has noticed “a greater willingness and a greater sense of participation” from big companies to give advice and share war stories with other players in the industry.

Larta itself has partnered with the National Institutes of Health to help startups that have obtained Small Business Innovation Research Grants (SBIR). In one of Larta’s programs, for example, the institute matches the early-stage companies with a Larta “Principal Advisor,” usually a seasoned business executive hired by Larta to be a guide and mentor during the program.

The mentors and their assigned companies go through the company’s goals and objectives and discuss its research progress. This is a kind of focused attention that many companies should, but don’t, get from their scientific advisory boards. “Boards are often populated by window dressers,” says Shukla.

A program like this is extremely valuable because a great proportion of biotechnology companies, especially the small startups, really know very little about what pharma companies are looking for in a potential partnership. “The complexity of navigating an increasingly complex environment of regulation and liability is not well understood,” says Shukla. Through the mentorship program, smaller companies learn “how to actually play the game with a large company.” According to Shukla, over $400 million has been raised, and 10 acquisitions have taken place, as a result of the program.

Larta also draws on members of its Industry Advisory Board, who represent companies such as Merck, Genzyme, J&J, Allergan, Medtronic, Siemens, and Abbott, to give companies feedback about industry dynamics, or possible partnering deals.

The pharmaceutical industry’s pipeline is looking fairly dry these days, so helping out some of the smaller fish in the life sciences pond is a very smart idea.

Sylvia Pagán Westphal is Xconomy's life sciences columnist. You can reach her at swestphal@xconomy.com or you can follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sylviawestphal. Visit http://www.xconomy.com/author/swestphal/ for Sylvia's full bio and disclosures. Follow @

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