The Biotech Educational Path – Past, Present, and Future

There are no Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, or Mark Zuckerbergs in the biotechnology industry – why?  Somehow, without even a college degree, these iconic technology founders started companies that changed the world.  Unlike the computer hardware and software industry, practically all biotech entrepreneurs have Ph.D.s and go through a version of the “traditional biotech education path” summarized below. 

(starting freshman year of high school)

Stage 1: Fundamental STEM skills acquisition (years 1-6)

Students gain a baseline understanding in the areas of mathematics, chemistry, biology, and physics.  Courses on these topics are a prerequisite for most science and engineering degrees and the classes are filled with students with diverse interests (e.g. pharmacy, forensic sciences, environmental engineering).   

Stage 2: Core biotechnology skills acquisition – (years 7-10)

Students begin to receive introductory biotechnology-specific training.  Courses in analytical chemistry, molecular biology, bioinformatics, and biochemistry are commonly taken at this stage.  High achieving students may begin to participate in closely supervised investigative research projects.

Stage 3: Supervised investigative biotechnology research – (years 11-13)

Students have completed all formal coursework and work almost exclusively on investigative research projects approved by their thesis committee under the mentorship of their research advisor.  The quality of the education provided at this stage is highly variable in the United States and is heavily dependent on the engagement of the student’s research advisor.  A professor at a major research university may supervise anywhere from 0 to 50+ graduate students.

Stage 4: Independent investigative biotechnology research – (years 13-15)

Students have received their Ph.D. and are now post-doctoral associates (postdocs).  Postdocs are typically given considerable freedom to develop and perform investigative research projects in academic research groups headed by tenured professors.  Postdocs are the core engine of biotechnology research in the United States.  Many new startup biotechnology companies are spun-off from academic research performed by postdocs.

Origins of the traditional path

The traditional path has remained basically unchanged for the last 100 years and was not developed to create a biotechnology workforce or entrepreneurs like Gates and Zuckerberg.  It is derived from and tightly intertwined with the career path to a tenured professor position in academic research.  A tenured professor is expected to be a master of the history of their discipline, an educator of undergraduate and graduate students, and (especially in more modern times) a professional marketer and grant writer.  It is a very prestigious and sought after position – a tenured professor gets essentially a lifetime appointment.  I believe the unintended consequences of intertwining the career paths of a biotechnology entrepreneur and a tenured professor is severely hampering innovation in the field.

The fundamental problem

Being an entrepreneur in any field is an inherently risky career move.  There are all kinds of failure modes: the idea may not work, the economic conditions may change, a competitor may come up with a better product, and the list goes on.  However, in the biotech industry it is even riskier still.  To get to the point where you ostensibly have the skills to start a new biotech company, you have to spend 10+ years in school.  Most people exit the traditional path in their late 20s or early 30s – which happens to be the same time many consider starting families or buying their first home.  To top it all off, starting a biotech company requires expensive equipment and employees with Ph.D.s, which together may cost upwards of $1,000,000 per year.  The top people exiting the traditional path usually end up as assistant professors and their time is wholly consumed by the pressure to receive tenure at their university.  I believe these factors synergistically discourage the overwhelming majority of people, even those with great ideas, from becoming biotech entrepreneurs.

How the Great Lakes Biotech Academy will address the problem

At the Great Lakes Biotech Academy we are holistically developing educational programs outside the traditional path to provide young people with the skills they need to act on and prototype their great ideas.  Our programs are not meant to be a substitute for an advanced degree, but a launching platform for talented young people to participate in the biotech industry.

There are three main pillars of our approach:

1.      Core skills training in biotechnology via The Fellows Program

2.      Apprenticeship style mentoring for Fellows Program graduates

3.      Dramatically lowering the costs to perform basic biotech research

The Fellows Program will provide the hands-on skills needed to perform biotechnology R&D.  The history, theory, and rigorous derivation of how each technique works will be relegated to optional homework assignments and replaced with practical tips and tricks that practicing scientists use to get work done on a daily basis.  We will rapidly move through topics in microbiology, genetics, and molecular biology – all the time directly integrating the topics we cover in the classroom with hands-on experimental work to reinforce the key points.  A person writing a smartphone app doesn’t need to understand the history and theory behind how a compiler converts c++ code into machine language; they just need to know the one line text command to compile the program.  Why should it be any different with biotechnology?   

Once a student graduates from the Fellows Program they will be invited to participate in ongoing academic research projects at the Academy.  Fellows will get to practice their newly acquired skills and receive mentorship from practicing scientists and older Fellows Program graduates.  We anticipate that as Fellows gain confidence in their capabilities they will begin to make creative contributions to the research programs.  This should create a self-reinforcing positive feedback loop and a fertile environment for new discoveries.

The third pillar of our program is to find creative ways to lower the costs of performing modern biotechnology research.  To realize these lower costs we have made strategic decisions about how we produce, store, and modify DNA that differs from common practice.  We have also elected to not seek or utilize commercial laboratory equipment – because that approach isn’t scalable.  Instead, our focus will be to find consumer grade products to replace many of the essential pieces of laboratory equipment.  Consumer grade products are sold in competitive mass markets at low cost.  A simple example of a consumer product substitute is a Sous-vide immersion circulator in place of a research grade temperature regulated water bath.  When a consumer product based substitute isn’t viable, we will use a combination of 3D printing and low-cost parts to “MacGyver” it.  Keep an eye on our news section for more posts dedicated to this topic.