It was a huge day for undergraduate researchers and biotechnology faculty mentors at CSU Long Beach, CSU Northridge and San Francisco State University.

The NIH announced today that all three universities won BUILD grants. These are huge grants ($17million – $22million over 5 years). Each grant will help to prepare greater numbers of undergraduate students for biomedical research careers, to intentionally support students’ work towards their goals, and to carry out studies to gauge the effectiveness of campus programming. Because the CSU’s students – as a whole* – reflect California’s demographics, these grants are also designed to help improve the diversity of the biomedical research workforce.  Interestingly each of the three CSU BUILD programs will be studying a different angle of the cultural and institutional changes needed so that more underrepresented students persist and succeed in biomedical research-based career paths.

BUILD programs will support undergraduate researchers on the three campuses and at partner sites – including both community organizations and research-intensive universities. We all know that mentored research experiences (faculty-mentored and peer-mentored) are high impact practices, shown to engage and inspire undergraduates.  They also happen to be exactly the kind of experiences biotechnology employers, medical schools and doctoral programs are seeking in our graduates.  So – all in all – this new investment in the CSU’s students and faculty mentors is a huge win for California (and the nation’s) biotechnology and biomedical communities!

From left: Professor of Biology Carmen Domingo (CSUPERB PI), Professor of Cognitive Psychology Avi Ben-Zeev, Professor of Biology and Lead Investigator for SF BUILD Leticia Márquez-Magaña (CSUPERB PI) and Associate Professor of Chemistry/Biochemistry Teaster Baird Jr. Photo Credit to SFSU (

From left: Professor of Biology Carmen Domingo (CSUPERB PI), Professor of Cognitive Psychology Avi Ben-Zeev, Professor of Biology and Lead Investigator for SF BUILD Leticia Márquez-Magaña (CSUPERB PI) and Associate Professor of Chemistry/Biochemistry Teaster Baird Jr. Photo Credit to SFSU (

But the news is also tremendously exciting and personal to the CSUPERB community. The grants involve many of our friends and colleagues, CSUPERB PIs, chief research officers, Presidents’ Commission and FCG members. For years it seems we’ve been talking amongst ourselves about the strategic need for more public and private support for undergraduate education and research.  Even at the national level there has been much talk and reporting about closing achievement gaps, but relatively few dollars were targeted to undergraduate students and researchers on our campuses.  Of course – taking into account last week’s announcement of the Helmsley Trust-supported STEM Collaboratives – it’s plain to see CSU faculty and administrators are doing much more than talking about things. But now they have some new resources with which to innovate and address head-on the implicit biases in our education and research culture.  I’m just saying – tonight many of us have goosebumps!


*Not our STEM graduates, however.  See data here.

    VISTAbuzz: The Science of Business

    It’s been a busy start-up kind of fall for the CSUPERB program office. Things keeping me in the background include: opening up this year’s poster abstract process* for the 27th Annual CSU Biotechnology Symposium, advocating for the CIRM Bridges programs, seeing Helmsley Trust awards made for new CSU STEM Collaboratives, issuing the new Requests for Proposals (RFPs) for CSUPERB grant programs, and teaching and mentoring our first class of CSU I-Corps teams.**

    How does the four-person CSUPERB program office stay on top of all this program activity?  Well – nearly one hundred faculty committee volunteers are working to move things forward with us this fall.  As examples, Paula Fischhaber (CSU Northridge) is overseeing the symposium award selection process this year and Math Cuajungco (CSU Fullerton) is organizing the Graduate School Information Session for students who attend the symposium.  But this fall the program office is extra-fortunate to have the help of two fine women – Dayna Zarate (our student assistant) and Shannon Palka (our AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer).

    Dayna handles the tsunami of submission files (poster abstracts, proposals, registrations, etc.) our office receives. She’s got a couple years of administrative experience working in our office now. I think she could run her own public health grant program and maybe she will some day! Shannon is helping us ramp up and figure out how best to interest students in CSU I-Corps opportunities. She’s also taken on most of the I-Corps team liaison activities, meaning she’s the one most teams reach out to figure out how to apply and spend microgrants, how to upload documents to the teams’ Google Drive, how to get intellectual property advice on campus, how to make contact with industry mentors, how to find appropriate biotech meetings, etc. etc. etc. (…including the @csu_icorps Twitter feed)!

    So that I can get my next CSU I-Corps webinar ready for our 10/24 meeting (multi-sided biotech markets, anyone?!), Shannon Palka is our guest blogger today. Her essay below appeared first (with more photos) on the CSU STEM VISTA blog.  Take some time to read other posts there from the STEM VISTA volunteers working on CSU university campuses statewide. Thanks to Shannon and her colleagues we serve our students and surrounding communities more effectively. As you’ll read below – these capable, thoughtful VISTA volunteers are already strategic and – dare I say – entrepreneurial leaders!


    “The Science of Business

    As you can read about on this blog, my CSU STEM VISTA colleagues are helping provide opportunities to STEM students across the nation’s largest four-year public university system. They’re working to provide research opportunities, internships, mentoring, career prep, etc., and they’re all doing amazing things.

    My program has a slightly different flavor than the other projects you’ll read about here, because of its distinct business and entrepreneurship emphasis. I am working with student and faculty researchers to implement a program funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) called Innovation Corps (or I-Corps). In essence, [the CSU] I-Corps is an immersive, interdisciplinary experience that trains nascent academic entrepreneurs and curious researchers about how to bring their discoveries from the lab to the market. The emphasis is learning rather than commercial success, which is pretty unique as far as entrepreneurship programs go. STEM students learn business skills and networking and develop interpersonally in a low-risk environment, adding another dimension to their undergraduate training and preparing them for life after graduation, no matter what field they intend to enter.

    Now, my undergraduate degree was in English and my professional experience is in community building. I never took a business class, and I was never tempted to. I assumed they would be about laws and regulations, how to make a spread sheet, and other topics I just do not find interesting. Maybe that assumption is right. Like bannerI said, I never took a class.

    In planning and promoting the new I-Corps program for CSU students across all 23 campuses, I had to learn about effective entrepreneurship so I could explain the benefits of I-Corps to researchers with as much business training as I have. So, I went through rapid commercialization training, similar to what we’re providing I-Corps participants. My learning curve was a sharp right angle. It was a baptism by fire, of sorts. What I learned surprised me.

    Entrepreneurship isn’t about making money – at least not intrinsically. It’s about solving problems. Step One of a successful venture is finding the biggest, baddest problems that plague people relentlessly. These are “migraine problems,images (1)” as Diana Kander dubbed them in All In Startup, because they’re the ones you would do anything to get rid of. Step Two is finding a successful, practical remedy to that problem.  It’s about crafting solutions. There’s just as much experimenting and discovery in entrepreneurship as there is in a traditional chemistry lab.

    Step Three is the kicker, and, if done right, it should color steps One and Two. Step Three is wasting no time or money in the process.

    I’ve been immersed in entrepreneurship theory, and I’ve learned there’s no shame in abandoning an idea that won’t work, or that just isn’t the best. We make assumptions about good ways to fix a problem, and – since we’re human – those assumptions are often flawed. Maybe we don’t fully understand the problem. Maybe we’re making assumptions about the needs of everyone who will be affected, or the broader context you’re working in.

    It’s not because we’re stupid. It’s because we’re human. The scope of our knowledge and understanding can fundamentally not encompass everything we’d like to know, or even everything we perhaps should know.

    So, rather than throwing away good money after bad trying to make an imperfect solution work, successful entrepreneurs strive to find any potential flaws early, fix them and change course, or abandon the idea and begin again in a new direction.

    This is the entrepreneurial spirit. It’s actively searching for the good and the bad in a plan. It’s identifying the unknown through research and persistence and adapting to the unexpected, accordingly. It’s cutting your losses before you’ve bankrupted your time and resources. It’s learning; it’s creating; and it goes hand in hand with STEM.”

    - Shannon Palka (October 20th, 2015)


    * We received 318 abstract submissions this year from 21 CSU campuses, representing research from about 160 faculty-led labs across California.  We’re expecting we can accept about 82% of them this year.  The poster abstract selection committee is hard at work!

    **Teams should start forming for the next two CSU I-Corps classes, or cohorts!

      Why we do what we do

      There is a fun meme circulating the Twittersphere these days thanks to the NatureJobs blog.  Scientists are tweeting in answer to the blog’s prompt #IAmAScientistBecause. The answers are all over the map; my current favorite is from @mimimibe who tweets, “it sometimes made me feel like a cartoon character.” The #IAmAnEngineerBecause and #IAmAnEntrepreneurBecause hashtags haven’t really taken off yet – but maybe they will!

      Program administrators don’t have their own hashtag yet,* but there is nothing like annual reporting season to remind us why we do what we do.  At first glance annual reporting might seem like a big data gathering and excel chart-making exercise with an audit cloud over it.  But once the data are organized and normalized, the stories, exceptional accomplishments and program impacts begin to rise above the noise.

      We collect these stories to explain what CSUPERB is all about in our annual report. Stories about CSU faculty, students and alumni personalize and make real the numbers represented in those excel charts. This year’s version is linked here for your reading pleasure.

      We never have room to share all the great stories we hear from CSUPERB-supported faculty and students.  This year I purposefully asked investigators, instructors and researchers for permission to share their stories or quotes here on the blog.


      Shannon Wood (center) presents her research results at the 26th annual CSU Biotechnology Symposium in Santa Clara, California.

      My correspondence with Shannon Wood caught her mid-job search.  Ms. Wood worked with Dr. Sean Murray at CSU Northridge and completed a master’s degree this spring. Ms. Wood won a Spring 2014 CSUPERB travel grant to travel to Germany for an EMBO workshop titled “Stalked alpha-Proteobacteria and Relatives: From Genes to Structure.” She wrote in her final report, “…I was able to meet many of the researchers whose papers I cited in my thesis. It’s amazing how ‘real’ even the most established researchers are. I met Lucy Shapiro, one of my biggest idols; she revolutionized developmental biology research using Caulobacter crescentus…I was able to sit across from her at meals and listen to her endless stories…Needless to say, this meeting was more than I could have ever dreamed it would be.”  Ms. Wood is an exceptionally successful researcher; she was an Eden Award Finalist at the 26th CSU Biotechnology Symposium and won the Young Investigator Award at the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) meeting in May 2013.  In her final report to CSUPERB she said she thoroughly enjoys research and wants to “stick with it.” I found out this week Shannon landed a job at the USC Norris Cancer Center in August, where she’s working on the PsychENCODE project in Peggy Farnham‘s lab. My guess is she’ll be an exceptional mentor – and maybe even an idol some day – for up-and-coming students and trainees as she establishes her own research career.

      Here are some other noteworthy updates and comments from CSUPERB-supported students and faculty to help bring voices to the annual report data:

      “This CSUPERB grant was instrumental…The funding came at a critical time and I am very grateful for the support…If possible please share my appreciation with the grant reviewers.” – Andrew Voss (CSUPERB New Investigator PI, Cal Poly Pomona, now Wright State University), who made a pivotal discovery related to Huntington’s disease.

      “This program is invaluable! It is particularly important…(as) national grants are becoming more and more difficult to come by. Also, belonging to a small biology department (like the one at CSUEB) with faculty pursuing diverse research interests, faculty like me can feel isolated at times. It is difficult to stay up to date in my field when I am working in isolation and do not have access to all the latest publications. Going to these meetings helps ameliorate these issues to some degree.” – Maria Gallegos (CSUPERB Spring 2013 Travel grant, CSU East Bay), who presented lessons learned teaching a discovery-based course at the 19th International Caenorhabditis elegans Meeting.

      “This has been an incredibly valuable program for us. It has allowed us to develop critical preliminary data for grant submissions, as well as funding student research, which has helped them get into top biomedical PhD programs in the country…It has also allowed me to continue my research and earn tenure and promotion to associate professor.” – Miri Van Hoven (CSUPERB Research Development PI, San Jose State University), who was also featured in The Chronicle as a mentor to graduate students interested in transitioning to faculty positions.

      “This is a great program for New Investigators who are looking to apply for extramural funding and need key data to demonstrate that (1) their objectives and specific aims can be validated and (2) they are capable of performing these experiments in their laboratory setting…With the data gathered with the CSUPERB grant, I can now show that I have the training and resources at CSULA to execute the experimental design I propose.” – Katrina Yamazaki (CSUPERB New Investigator PI, CSU Los Angeles) who started up her lab with the help of five remarkable undergraduate and master’s students who are continuing on in biotechnology-related career paths.

      “The CSUPERB grant program is a keystone in the CSU system’s support of student training in biotechnology and molecular biology. The program not only provides research funding support for faculty to pursue innovative, and potentially transformative, avenues in biotechnology research, but it also provides the financial support needed to train students in the technologies of tomorrow.” – Sean Lema (CSUPERB New Investigator PI, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo) who obviously understands CSUPERB’s “dual strategy” of funding!

      Dr. Lema’s quote is a fitting book-end to the 2013-2014 academic year at CSUPERB. At the August Faculty Consensus Group meeting, we kicked off our strategic planning process.  We write a new strategic plan every three years.  This fall CSUPERB leadership will be pouring over annual reports, PI final reports, and feedback from our communities of interest, learning, and practice to figure out how best to serve the CSU’s biotechnology instructors, researchers and entrepreneurs.  Check back in this spring to read not only about “why we do what we do,” but also how we’ll do things 2015-2018.  My guess is that we’ll continue to invest in promising young researchers, engaging, effective curriculum and inspirational mentors across the California State University.


      *maybe because we still self-identify as scientists, engineers or entrepreneurs!

        Talking about Innovation Corps and the CSU I-Corps Site

        On Monday and Tuesday, the CSUPERB Faculty Consensus Group (FCG) and Strategic Planning Council (SPC) met to plan out the program details for academic year 2014-2015.  We had packed agendas, so there wasn’t much wiggle room for wide-ranging discussions about program news (always frustrating to academic scientists!).

        But when I re-introduced the new CSU I-Corps Site program – the group wanted to stop, talk, ponder and learn.  Most of the FCG representatives knew we submitted a proposal but this was our first set of meetings since the award was made. We used NCIIA’s 3-minute video to introduce I-Corps to the group, but there were many more questions than the video could answer or we could address in the time allotted.

        So imagine my delight to find a new 30-minute interview with Steve Blank on Mendels Pod. As readers of this blog might know, Steve Blank is the architect of the original Lean LaunchPad course at Stanford and has worked closely with NSF and NIH to create a National Innovation Network around the I-Corps Nodes, Sites and Teams.  We’ve already added the video to our Resources page at the CSU I-Corps Web Portal and encouraged the SPC members to watch.  In my opinion the video answers most of the questions asked at Monday and Tuesday’s meetings.

        There are many pundits, thought-leaders and educators thinking about (bio)technology commercialization these days – as are the FCG and SPC.  As we kicked off our strategic Tagxedo_FCG_WordCloud_080414planning process, we asked the campus representatives to tell us what issues CSUPERB needs to pay attention to 2015-2018.  Industry was a prominent feature of the resulting word cloud (blue figure to the left; click to zoom in), as were interdisciplinary, partnerships and collaboration.

        Reinforcing this convergence of thought, my inbox today included a Notice Of Request For Information from the U.S. administration looking to inform a new “Strategy for American Innovation.” The notice calls out “the convergence of biology, the physical sciences, and engineering; and the emergence of human-centered design” as an “innovation trend.”  As the black and white figure below (taken from this new report from NSF; click on the chart to zoom in) shows, biotechnology and pharmaceutical extramural industry R&Dcompanies depend heavily on academic researchers and external partners, compared to other industries.  These industries represent one “customer” for biotechnology ideas academic researchers might have.  This is a big shift in thinking for PIs trained to see funding agencies as their sole “customers.” The FCG and SPC think CSUPERB needs to support faculty and students interested in partnering to provide solutions for customer markets and global needs, however those “pulls” might be defined.

        The I-Corps curriculum and program pushes researchers “out of the building” to talk with unfamiliar customers and industry experts. This outward-facing, experiential learning process aims to teach researchers how to find customers lean vs designwho need their expertise and ideas to solve real, “painful” problems.  Blank and others hope evidence-based entrepreneurship can make the research and development process more efficient and capable of fueling a national “innovation strategy.” A ‘customer focus’ is not only a culture change on university campuses, it’s a change in how start-up companies, corporations and management faculty think about innovation and product development (zoom in on the figure here; sourced from this Steve Blank blog post).

        If Steve Blank’s 30-minute video doesn’t give you enough information to imagine what the customer discovery process might be like, the CSU I-Corps program team (me, along with Jay Chandler and Shannon Palka, the new VISTA members helping us ramp up student outreach) recommends reading All In Startup, by Diana Kander.  It’s a rip-snorting evidence-based entrepreneurship instructional text masquerading as a summer novel.  I finished the book in round-trip flights from San Diego to San Francisco last week.

        So far the CSU I-Corps has made two microgrants to student-led teams working on patient solutions.  By the September 8th deadline, we’re also hoping to see applications from agricultural researchers, environmental scientists and basic researchers interested in exploring commercialization pathways.  We know there are creative, curious researchers across the CSU capable of solving societal problems.  We hope CSU I-Corps can help them figure out how.

          Program Update: Summer Transitions

          Summer brings change to university campuses as well as CSUPERB.  I returned from a week-long vacation in New Mexico to find a letter from Chancellor White making new CSUPERB Presidents’ Commission appointments. We are also wrapping up the annual election and appointment cycles on the Strategic Planning Council (SPC) and Faculty Consensus Group (FCG). As a result I have some program governance changes to report to the CSUPERB community!


          Chancellor White appointed Karen Haynes, President at CSU San Marcos, as Chair of the CSUPERB Presidents’ Commission, to replace Rollin Richmond (Humboldt State) who is retiring.  We’ve already written here about the work that President Richmond has done for CSUPERB – we’re going to miss his leadership. President Haynes will be taking on an advocacy role for the CSU’s biotechnology students and faculty, as well as meeting with me every 4-6 weeks to make sure the program remains aligned with CSU system and CSUPERB strategy! Despite the added responsibility and workload, she says she’s “enthusiastically in” and looking forward to an “interesting, new assignment” – making for a smooth leadership transition.

          Chancellor White also appointed Steve Relyea (Executive Vice Chancellor & Chief Financial Officer) and Les Wong (President, San Francisco State University) to the Presidents’ Commission. These appointments mean the Commission is at full-strength as we head into our next three-year strategic planning cycle.


          Bori Mazzag, a mathematics professor from Humboldt State, was elected by the Faculty Consensus Group to the SPC for the first time.  Bori organized a series of “biomath” meetings and workshops at recent CSU Biotech Symposia; we welcome her quantitative energy on the SPC! Daryl Eggers (Chemistry, San Jose State University) and Katherine McReynolds (Chemistry, CSU Sacramento) were re-elected by the FCG.


          During the spring, campus deans and presidents made appointments to the Faculty Consensus Group.  As FCG members become deans, retire or take new jobs, new faculty members take their place, bringing new perspectives and energy to CSUPERB’s “congress.”  This spring Laura Burrus (Biology, San Francisco State University), Tyler Evans (Biological Sciences, CSU East Bay), Deborah Fraser (Biological Sciences, CSU Long Beach), Ryan Luke (Kinesiology, CSU Monterey Bay), Kasuen Mauldin (Nutrition, Food Science & Packaging), Rahul Singh (Computer Science, San Francisco State University) and last -but never least – Roland Wolkowicz (Biology, San Diego State University) join the FCG for the first time.

          These are the folks that keep CSUPERB relevant and responsive to our system-wide student and faculty community of learning, teaching and practice.  Together the Presidents Commission, the SPC and the FCG formulate CSUPERB’s programming and set priorities reflected in our requests for applications and proposals.  These are the strategic thinkers that ponder teaching, learning and research issues that transcend campuses so that we can offer the best biotechnology education and experiences to students across California.

          A few of these brave newbies emailed me asking for links or papers that represent what CSUPERB is thinking about.  We share our strategic plan, relevant papers and reports on our website, and the LinkedIn group. But I know it is overwhelming paging through those archives and finding articles of interest. So I selected three commentaries that have motivated me or reflect our thinking this past year (I’ll bet regular CSUPERB blog readers can predict which articles I’m recommending!).  For your summer reading pleasure or provocation, join CSUPERB’s strategic leadership in pondering:

          1) Alberts, Kirshner, Tilghman & Varmus (2014) Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws. PNAS, vol. 111, no. 16, pp. 5773–5777; doi: 10.1073/pnas.1404402111

          2) Wieman (2014) Large-scale comparison of science teaching methods sends clear message. PNAS, vol. 111, no. 23, pp. 8319-8320; doi: 10.1073/pnas.1407304111

          3) Lubynsky (2013) From Lab Bench to Innovation: Critical Challenges to Nascent Academic Entrepreneurs. Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation; based on a University of Maryland University College Dissertation, December, 2012.

            A New Part of NSF’s Innovation Corps

            While it’s been quiet here on the CSUPERB blog, we’ve been travelling, consulting, building relationships and developing programming for a new NSF-supported Innovation Corps (I-Corps) Biological Site for the CSU!

            icorpsAll the leg-work led to today’s system-wide call for Teams and Applications for CSU I-Corps opportunities this fall.  Contact CSUPERB, find an FCG member or ask at your campus research office to get details about our first CSU I-Corps informational webinar at noon on Friday, June 20th (sent out as part of a system-wide email today).

            The last time CSUPERB formulated a strategic plan,* we decided to add an emphasis on entrepreneurship education.  Our simple aim is to teach CSU researchers about “what is needed to take a life sciences idea to a commercial product.”  In 2012 we organized the CSUPERB-I2P Early-stage Biotechnology Commercialization Challenge – an immersive entrepreneurship experience for CSU science, engineering and business students. Based on our experience with that program and the CSUPERB Entrepreneurial Joint Venture grant program, we submitted a grant proposal to NSF’s I-Corps Site program last May.

            Due to the government shut-down and other federal budget wrangling, NSF didn’t make I-Corps Site awards until this May – but we did win an award! As a result we now have NSF backing to expand and institutionalize our biological sciences entrepreneurship educational programming.

            The CSU I-Corps will:

            This I-Corps Award is significant for the CSU.  Recipients of CSU I-Corps microgrants will be eligible to apply for NSF’s I-Corp Team grants.  Until the Site awards were granted, only NSF PIs had access to this program.

            CSU I-Corps programming will help CSU researchers build teams and the skills to compete for follow-on funding from NSF, but also SBIR/STTRNCIIA E-Team and on-ramping opportunities at incubators and accelerators.  I should also note that NIH is embracing the I-Corps program** so soon there may be follow-on funding opportunities from that agency as well.

            Our status as an I-Corps Site also gives us access to cutting-edge curriculum and resources of the National Innovation Network (NIN) that NSF has created, in addition to the life science entrepreneurship curriculum we’re developing with San Diego State University’s Lavin Entrepreneurship Center (Alex DeNoble, co-PI), Zahn Center (Cathy Pucher) and College of Sciences (Stanley Maloy, Dean & SPC member).  I attended the NIN meeting in April and brought home to the CSU many of the ideas and approaches I heard about there. The nationwide network of PIs continues to meet by videocon monthly – we have much to learn from each other about commercializing federally funded ideas!

            Recognizing the work needed to build a solid and responsive network of alumni and partners, we also wrote a proposal to the CSU’s STEM VISTA program.  We are fortunate that not one, but two, VISTA members will be joining the CSUPERB program office in July to help us with organizational capacity building, student outreach and matching mechanisms for teams and mentors!  We are really looking forward to working with the AmeriCorps VISTA organization – you can imagine the energy and can-do effectiveness “domestic” Peace Corp members will bring with them to CSU I-Corps!  We hope their enthusiasm and talents will engage students enrolled at urban and rural, biotech hub-based and far-flung campuses across California in biological sciences entrepreneurship. I learned at the NIN meeting that NCIIA has a similar cadre of NSF-funded Epicenter innovation fellows (watch the cool ~1 minute video here). In fact the Spring 2014 cohort of University Innovation Fellows includes a Cal Poly alum! We plan to share notes on effective outreach and student engagement with the Epicenter program as well going forward.

            After we submitted the I-Corps proposal in May 2013, Steve Blank and UCSF offered a LeanLaunch Pad course for life sciences (lessons learned can be found on his blog!)  Blank’s team discovered what we did running the I2P Challenge: it is critical for researchers to get out of the lab and off campus to talk with potential customers and industry experts about product development concepts, customer channels and regulatory affairs.  We partnered with an amazing array of campus innovation centers and biotechnology industry associations to organize meetings and workshops for curious academic researchers statewide – we have a partnership meeting in a couple of weeks to start scheduling!

            We all hope that these immersive experiences will set researchers up for future success – whether it’s licensing out a promising idea, finding additional financing, taking a job at a start-up company or deciding more research and development is needed to commercialize a biotechnology idea.  At minimum – students say the team-based entrepreneurship experiences are eye-opening and lead to valued, real-world skills.   I found out this week that Warren Smith and Manmeet Singh (Sac State’s 2014 I2P first place finishers) won an NSF I-Corps Team grant, suggesting CSUPERB’s biological sciences entrepreneurship pipeline is primed!

            CSUPERB gets glee in breaking down barriers between scientists, engineers and business folks.  We are grateful that NSF and AmeriCorps have provided fuel to continue our work for the next three years!


            *During the Fall 2014 CSUPERB will embark on new strategic planning discussions for 2015-2018.  If you have ideas, suggestions or quibbles – contact us or your FCG and SPC representatives!

            **I linked to the Science article about I-Corps above, but I do recommend reading it for background strategies and outcomes expected for this type of an entrepreneurship education program.  For more scholarly background, I also suggest Roman Lubynsky’s Kauffman Foundation article. From it you’ll get a very good sense of how long it really takes to commercialize research-based ideas as compared to technology-based ideas (and why many of us think researchers have perverse incentives – SBIR grants – to form bioscience companies too early)!  As I crafted the I-Corps proposal last spring, I collected these and other biotechnology entrepreneurship education resources at our site.

              Aligning Biotech Education with Entrepreneurial Workforce Needs

              As part of my industry liaison role for CSUPERB, I serve on biotechnology industry association boards at BayBio Institute and BIOCOM Institute so that I can make connections and align our programming with industry interests and priorities, especially around workforce needs. This is how I confirm that the #1 biotech workforce need is “hands-on practice and participation in multi-disciplinary, team-based research projects.”  This week Northeastern University publicized the findings from a nationwide CEO survey (not focused on biotech), including this recommendation:

              “An over­whelming majority of respon­dents (97 per­cent) say that expe­ri­en­tial education – the integra­tion of class­room study with pro­fes­sional experience – is crit­ical to an individual’s suc­cess. A large majority of busi­ness leaders (89 per­cent) also believe the nation’s higher edu­ca­tion system should expand oppor­tu­ni­ties for teaching entrepreneurship.”

              From a biotech perspective, hiring managers usually add that they’d like graduates to have an understanding of project management (budgets, timelines, deliverables) and the regulatory (FDA or EPA) environment. In fact, even Alberts and coauthors* write that “interdisciplinary MS degree programs that combine training in science with leadership, project management, teamwork, and communication skills match well with industry needs and should be expanded with federal support.”

              None of this is news. These findings echo what we heard three years ago when we wrote our last strategic plan (and how I operated as a hiring manager in biotech companies myself).  From both sides of what is sometimes called the “valley of death” for biotech innovation, universities and industry are working to bridge the gap(s) between academic research and biotechnology commercialization. Academic researchers are rarely exposed to the entire biotech product development lifecycle. Research-based start-up CEOs don’t always have experience raising money and formulating milestones needed to move a biotechnology towards commercialization. Much attention is given in the press to money thrown at the problem, but Steve Blank and others – like the CEOs Northeastern interviewed – advocate for more efficiency in the ecosystem and emphasize entrepreneurship education.

              Across the CSU, master’s / Professional Science Master’s / Science Master’s Programs, Centers of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and competitions, like the CSUPERB-I2P Challenge, offer experiential learning opportunities through internships and immersive entrepreneurship programming. Similar motivations led BayBio Institute to pilot and launch the BayBio Fellows and FAST programs, supporting new company formation and success.

              Helen Lam, Lily Chen, Peter Manzo & Joseph Oloo at the BayBio Fellow All-Star Team (FAST) Advisory Program wrap-up in December.

              Helen Lam, Lily Chen, Peter Manzo & Joseph Oloo at the BayBio Fellows All-Star Team (FAST) Advisory Program wrap-up in December.

              After seven years on this job working across this great state, I have come to accept it is impossible to keep up with all the wonderful things going on across the California State University. But imagine my delight to learn that San Francisco State University’s Professional Science Master’s program and BayBio Institute teamed up to support biotech companies participating in the BayBio Fellows All-Star Team (FAST) Advisory Program! I had no role in making the connection. Lily Chen (SFSU’s PSM program director) explains in the Spring 2014 issue of SFSU’s BioNews “BayBio [Institute’s] Executive Director Lori Lindburg and FAST [Sr. Program Advisor] Steve Karp approached me about involving PSM students in the program last September. I saw this as a great opportunity for the students to gain an understanding of some of the issues involved in early stage research and development and to meet high-level entrepreneurs, researchers, investors and business advisors with expertise in clinical development, regulatory affairs, relevant technical R&D, financing and business development. As project managers [PM's], students chaired weekly meetings and provided notes and minutes to their team members.” The photo above puts some faces to the PM concept – Ms. Lam, Mr. Manzo (both research interns at Genentech) and Mr. Oloo (research intern at UCSF) all volunteered to work with FAST companies during Fall 2013. Steve Karp explains, “Last year 3 of the 4 FAST companies were 2-3 person affairs, populated almost exclusively by scientists. One of the issues they face is having to take care of operations issues when they need to be concentrating on fundraising or lab work.” Further, Steve says, “I think the real value of the FAST program for the PM’s is that they have learned a great deal about how the business really works. They have sat in on hours of discussion about markets, reimbursement, regulatory, IP considerations, etc. I believe that they will all have a significant leg up as a result when they enter the industry. Beyond that, I’m pretty sure they enjoyed it.” The SFSU-BayBio partnership has been a boon to both young companies and students; Steve and Lily plan to keep placing student interns and project managers in emerging company environments.

              After talking and writing (now) for years about “closing the gap” between university and the life science industry – it’s a thrill to see such a creative example of a university-industry partnership. These are the kinds of win-win partnerships that happen “organically” without an assist from a biotechnology liaison!  Instead, CSUPERB’s role is to spark curiosity, offer up possibilities, highlight successful collaborations and catalyze new ones.  To that last point, I’ll be eagerly looking for those future federal training programs Alberts, Kirshner, Tilghman & Varmus recommend – I think the CSU’s universities are ready to respond if the NIH is interested in closing academic research-industry gaps!


              *In case you have pay-wall access problems, the complete citation is: Alberts, B., Kirschner, M.W., Tilghman, S. & Varmus, H. (2014) Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws. PNAS (Early Edition). doi: 10.1073/pnas.1404402111