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Northeastern is Minding its Biotech Business

I’ve always enjoyed teaching – and have gained great satisfaction from having the opportunity to learn something new while sharing knowledge with someone else. For most of my professional life, this has taken the form of tutoring students, coaching employees and mentoring new entrepreneurs. So when I stumbled upon an opportunity to teach a course at Northeastern University, I jumped in with both feet.

The teaching opening was for a course called “The Business of Biotech”, a required course in the Biotechnology Professional Science Masters Degree program PSM. According to Northeastern’s web site, “The Biotechnology PSM degree is an innovative graduate degree designed to allow students to pursue advanced training and excel in science while simultaneously developing highly-valued business skills without acquiring a PhD or MBA”. Basically, the intent is to provide young scientists the skills needed to become productive members of the biotech workforce with minimal need for on the job training. Specific objectives for the program are to provide students with didactic (I had to look it up too) and practical knowledge in Molecular Biotechnology, Pharmaceutical Biotechnology and Process Development.

My first day was a little intimidating – not quite like a 1 on 1 mentoring session and not quite like a seminar presentation. As it turns out, most of the students were a little intimidated too. Not only did they not know who I was, they were mostly bachelor’s level scientists (one was an undergraduate) and the thought of taking a business course was as appealing to them as organic chemistry is to a pre-med undergraduate. The premise of the Business of Biotech course within a science program makes sense – scientists in a biotech company really should have a basic understanding of how the work they do fits into the real world of Venture Capital, M&A and market caps, etc.

It didn’t take long to build some rapport with the students and to get on with the course. Much of the course materials came from Harvard Business Review Case Studies – two sections of the course maintained roughly parallel topic coverage in this way. It was fun for me to dig into the details of transactions for which I had varying degrees of familiarity; and then challenging the students to work through alternative scenarios for addressing the business situations leading up to the transactions. All of the students were very bright and inquisitive. I was fascinated by their seeming amazement at the amount of time and energy that go into building a business plan or completing a negotiation for a biotech M&A transaction. The students, as scientists, were also intrigued by the financial behind making financial projections or company valuations – when in many instances the item being assessed is scientific in nature, ideas and intellectual property.

What was not surprising was the speed with which the students became noticeably more confident with the topics under discussion, even developing some business savvy in their writing and group presentation projects. The most fun for me was derived from taking advantage of my network of pharmaceutical/biotech industry veterans (a benefit of more than 20 years in the field) to serve as guest speakers – sort of a post-graduate show and tell. Friends and colleagues from business development pro, to lawyer to financial manager provided captivating bits of off-syllabus information and were swarmed with eager young students’ questions for hours past their allotted time. This sort of enthusiasm and appreciation on the part of the students just continued to gain momentum throughout the term – a very satisfying experience for a first time university teacher.

I hope the Northeastern Biotech PSM program continues to grow and attract such capable young scientists. Not sure how many of the students actually leave the program to go to work in a biotech company laboratory though. At the beginning of the term, many of the students were trying to decide whether or not to go for a doctorate in a biotech related discipline. Interestingly, at the end of the term, there were more students leaning toward an MBA or JD – and thinking about start-up ideas. It will be fun to see how these young scientists develop in their careers…and I am looking forward to the next term of The Business of Biotech.

By: ania.knap