Last month, Wayne Austin, a postdoctoral scientist who studies immunology and metabolism at the University of California, Los Angeles, had his final interview for an inside technical sales specialist position at bioscience company EMD Millipore. He was calm and composed as he talked with the hiring committee, able to describe clearly how his expertise would help the company sell its specialty equipment to life science laboratories.
The next day, Millipore offered him the job and he accepted. Had the interview taken place just a few days earlier, things might have gone less well, Austin thinks.
As it happened, the interview was scheduled in the midst of "Bridging the Gap", a Bioscience Management Bootcamp, which ran from 8 to 20 July and was organized by the Keck Graduate Institute (KGI) of Applied Life Sciences in California. KGI is known for its Professional Science Master's degree programs, which offer business and industry training to life scientists emerging from academia. Sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the boot camp is like a condensed version of the curriculum for one of those degrees, offering a 2-week cram session in business skills and various core competencies to postdocs looking to break into bioscience management, whether via entrepreneurship or employment at established companies.
The grooming of an entrepreneur
More than 150 scientists applied for the boot camp. Forty were selected to attend—including Andrew Gray, a second-year postdoc at the University of Southern California (USC). At first Gray, who studies tumor-fighting nanoparticles, planned to follow an academic route. But then, as a graduate student, he saw how difficult that was for many of his peers.
"I could see friends of mine who were a little ahead of me, how badly they were struggling to get federal grants and just how difficult the tenure track had become. I really felt like I would spend all my time writing grants and not really making an impact," he says. "You're so focused on just trying to keep the lights on that there's no time for creativity."
Just as he was becoming disillusioned with the prospect of working in academia, Thomas O'Malia, a professor in the USC Marshall School of Business, visited Gray's lab and offered the scientists there a chance to meet with him once a week to discuss entrepreneurship strategies. Along with several other students, Gray accepted the invitation.
Fast forward 2 years: Gray is working as a postdoc in the lab of USC oncology researcher Michael Wong, on a nanoparticle drug delivery system. He and Wong are planning to spin off their technology into a business. A representative from KGI visits USC to promote the boot camp. Hoping to increase the business savvy of his start-up team, Wong encourages Gray to apply.
Industry's core competencies
Marc Salata, KGI's director of marketing, shared several days' lessons from the boot camp with Science Careers, along with a detailed overview of the program's curriculum. According to KGI, these are the core competencies needed by industry-bound scientists:
- Familiarity with how commercialization works in the life science industry, especially the process of translating university-born technology into new companies
- Knowledge of the common business models used by biotechnology firms
- The ability to assess the attractiveness of a bioscience technology within a particular market, using market size, estimation techniques, and economic theories
- Experience with basic concepts of business strategy such as deterring competition and locking in customers
- Introductory accounting and corporate finance concepts
- Professional "soft skills" including teamwork, leadership, and spoken and written communication.
The majority of those skills will likely be more salient to entrepreneurs than to those seeking work in established companies. But, as Austin learned, the more applicants know about the value they bring to a company—and the better they're able to describe it—the better they are likely to look to the members of a hiring committee.
A typical day at camp, Gray says, starts with a case study (on, for example, the business strategies employed by various labs that raced to develop a synthetic version of insulin in the mid-1970s). After a short lunch break, there's an afternoon seminar on one of the camp's core topics. In the evening, teams meet to work on projects that typically involve analyzing a piece of technology and trying to decide whether it could support a valid business venture. These meetings frequently last until 10 p.m. or later, Gray says, so the days are fairly long and grueling.
Still, the course introduction notes that the boot camp "will not substitute for extensive management training" such as an MBA or professional master's degree. The real value of a short, intensive course like the boot camp, Gray says, is in learning the language and recognizing the gaps in your knowledge so that you know what to study in the future. "[I]t's enough for a guy with very limited business experience to at least learn what he doesn't know so he can start asking the right questions," he says.
Sold on the value of industry skills
Steve Casper (left) and Christian Herold (right)
Austin says that postdocs in academic labs rarely learn what's involved in turning a technology into a sellable product. "You wouldn't be exposed to these topics in your traditional postdoc unless you actively went out and got them"—which is precisely what Austin and the course's other participants, did.
The day before the Millipore job interview, the boot camp instructor "was lecturing about social intelligence," Austin says. "So, you've got practical intelligence, you've got a Ph.D.—but do you know how to speak to your audience and craft your message so that your audience understands where you're coming from? It's a really important skill when you're interviewing, especially in those late-round interviews when they're really looking at you with a fine-toothed comb." Austin is sure that this lesson, which he learned just the day before the interview, was a major factor in winning the job.
Paige Stein, manager of media relations at KGI, says the institute plans to hold another boot camp next year. But even those who can't attend can do other things to acquire similar skills, Gray says. To learn more about how industry works, take classes at your university's business school, he advises, even if it's just one class each semester. Better yet, join a venture club at the business school; the MBA students who constitute the bulk of such clubs are always looking for scientists to help them assess technology, Gray says. "By working as part of the team, you get exposed to their expertise, as well."