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Researchers Get a Dose of Business Education at Biotech 2020

For Scientists at Crossroads of Academia and Industry, Manning School Offers Map

Screenshot of the Biotech course on Zoom
Biotech 2020, a weeklong virtual course co-presented by the Manning School of Business, gave 45 Ph.D. students and postdoctoral researchers from across the country a chance to network and discuss their career paths.

By Ed Brennen

Understanding how science is conducted and commercialized in industry has taken on new urgency during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Biotech 2020, a weeklong virtual course co-presented recently by the Manning School of Business, gave 45 Ph.D. students and postdoctoral researchers in health, science and medical programs from across the country an intensive lesson in how to transition to careers in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries.

“A lot of students are thinking, ‘Do I pivot? Do I change and work in the biotech lane?’” says  Asst. Prof. of Marketing, Entrepreneurship and Innovation (MEI) Denise Dunlap, who organized the interdisciplinary course.

Dunlap has been involved with the course since it was started in 2014 by the American Society of Cell Biology (ASCB) and Keck Graduate Institute (KGI) in Claremont, Calif., where she is a visiting research scholar and former associate professor.

Last summer, Dunlap launched an East Coast version of the course, Biotech East, which drew 36 students from around the world to UMass Lowell. The Manning School, in conjunction with the Jack M. Wilson Center for Entrepreneurship, had planned to host the course on campus again this June before the pandemic hit.

“It’s such a unique group of students that come together for the course, and I wanted to keep that connection that we were able to establish,” said Dunlap, whose virtual version on Zoom combined the East and West courses.

Sponsored by Biogen, UMass Medical School and the Massachusetts Medical Device Development Center (M2D2)/Center for Advancing Point of Care Technologies (CAPCaT) at UMass Lowell, the course featured insights from industry leaders, panel discussions, professional development workshops and a bio entrepreneurship “boot camp” where small teams of participants developed pitches for the commercialization of a medical discovery.
“It’s such a unique group of students that come together for the course, and I wanted to keep that connection that we were able to establish.” -MEI Asst. Prof. Denise Dunlap

The course drew students from 40 institutions, including Yale, Northwestern and Johns Hopkins universities, as well as participants from Australia, Israel and Canada. And for the first time, Ph.D. students and postdocs from UMass Lowell and UMass Boston took part.

Christianto Putra, a Ph.D. student in pharmaceutical sciences in the Zuckerberg College of Health Sciences, plans to move into the life science industry. He learned “a lot more than I bargained for” about the business side of the industry, particularly the importance of interpersonal skills in job interviews.

“I often doubted myself, wondering if my science skills are good enough,” said Putra, who earned a master’s degree in clinical laboratory science from UML in 2016. “But I was wrong in that aspect. If you’re accepted for an interview, they know you can do the job. The only difference in being hired or not is your personal soft skills — your personality and how you fit in their team.”

Putra also enjoyed a panel discussion on how to determine which career path is right for you — industry or academia — featuring UMass President Emeritus Jack Wilson, Kennedy College of Sciences Assoc. Dean Matt Nugent, Manning School adjunct faculty member Bill Yelle ’85 and Vertex Pharmaceuticals founder Joshua Boger. Putra said it confirmed his choice to go into industry.

Warren Antonio Vieira, a postdoctoral fellow in the Biology Department at UMass Boston, said the course was “invaluable to me and has provided me so much new and useful information and a larger network of people to seek advice from.” 

MEI Asst. Teaching Prof. Deb Casey led a session on the fundamentals of a successful presentation, and Olga Tines, an assistant teaching professor of management, took part in a panel discussion on how COVID-19 is changing health care innovation.

According to Manning School Dean Sandra Richtermeyer, the course epitomizes the interdisciplinary collaboration that students need to learn.

“It’s so important for us to teach our business students how to support those in the sciences and help you build business models,” Richtermeyer told participants in her welcoming remarks. “By working with commercialization and entrepreneurial initiatives, our students can help carry the very important work that you do forward.”

Dunlap, who is a member of CAPCaT’s leadership team, received a grant from the organization to help reduce the course’s tuition to $200. She says the course was capped at 45 participants to help ensure that people could interact with one another virtually.

“These students spend so much of their time at their universities in their labs, and that’s their experience; they don’t have a lot of networking experience,” Dunlap said. “One of the strengths of this course is the opportunity to network and meet other people.”