By Ed Brennen
Denise Dunlap doesn’t have a background in science. But the assistant professor of marketing, entrepreneurship and innovation in the Manning School of Business does have a keen interest in the commercial side of science, specifically in researching breakthrough innovations in the global bio-pharmaceutical industry.
Which explains why Dunlap was the driving force behind Biotech East, a new weeklong course hosted recently by the Manning School and the Jack M. Wilson Center for Entrepreneurship for Ph.D. students and postdocs in health, science and medical programs interested in transitioning to careers in the biotech or pharmaceutical industries.
The course is a spinoff of Biotech West, which was started in 2014 by the American Society of Cell Biology (ASCB) and Keck Graduate Institute (KGI) in Claremont, Calif., where Dunlap is a visiting research scholar and former associate professor.
“There aren’t enough academic jobs right now for scientists to go into, so there’s a big push to go into industry,” Dunlap says. “But scientists don’t necessarily know the business side. And if companies are going to hire them, they want them to have a general understanding of how business works.”
Biotech East drew 36 participants from schools including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan, as well as from institutions as far away as Brazil and Austria.
“In Europe, the entrepreneurial culture is not as strong; people are afraid of failure,” says Andrej Hurny, who recently earned a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the Institute of Science and Technology Austria and is now working to commercialize a variety of disease-resistant plants that he has patented.
“I came here to get the spirit from people in America, where all the technology is coming from,” Hurny says. “I really like this idea of showing scientists how it works in business, because people in business think completely different.”
The course, which was sponsored by Biogen, featured guest speakers from industry and academia, a tour of the Massachusetts Medical Device Development Center (M2D2) and interdisciplinary team projects. It covered topics including commercializing science, market assessment, innovation management, networks and entrepreneurship.
MIT Prof. Harvey Lodish, a founder of Genzyme and Millennium Pharmaceuticals, delivered the closing keynote on building companies to treat rare genetic diseases.
Several Manning School faculty members led sessions, including UMass President Emeritus Jack Wilson, Asst. Prof. Spencer Ross and Asst. Teaching Prof. Deb Casey (who also helped Dunlap manage the course). Several faculty members from the UMass Medical School also participated.
Assoc. Prof. of Chemical Engineering Carl Lawton took part in a panel discussion on career and entrepreneurial paths that was led by alum Bill Yelle ’85, executive chairman of Envisia Therapeutics and a visiting teaching professor of strategic management in the Manning School.
“I made a transition from the research lab to business at about the same time that some of these students are, so a big part of this is getting them to understand that there’s a wide world out there that they can access,” says Yelle, a Methuen native who earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from UML. He went on to get his master’s in organic chemistry from the University of California at Berkeley and his MBA from Columbia University.
“This was a great opportunity to collaborate with Denise and tie in to being here at the university,” adds Yelle, whose late father, Louis, was a professor of management at UML for more than 30 years.
Dunlap says one of the reasons she joined UML in 2016 was that she “could see a push being made for interdisciplinary research between science and business.”
“I always knew there was this missing need,” says Dunlap, who sees the Greater Boston area as fertile ground for this kind of learning. “All it took was the support from the dean and the school to let a person like me kick something like this off. I really hope it continues.”
Based on its “incredible” success, Thea Clarke, director of communications and education for ASCB, anticipates the course returning to UMass Lowell in 2020.
“We had always wanted to expand to the East Coast, but we had to find the exact right spot where there’s the right kind of faculty who are interested in doing this,” Clarke says. “When my CEO and I met with the Manning School faculty and Dean (Sandra) Richtermeyer, they were really interested in bringing together business and science. It was a perfect fit.”