Non-academic career paths are not hiding











Two very different articles and an unsettling conversation came across my radar this month.

The first is an article in the July 2015 issue of Nature Biotechnology, “Emerging network of resources for exploring paths beyond academia,” written by postdoc Fanuel Muindi and doctoral candidate Joseph B. Keller, both from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They explain, “…some trainees may simply lack the information necessary to make an informed decision about their post-training careers.” The second article is “A hidden start,” by Trisha Gura at the Science Careers website. Both articles offer guidance on finding information about non-academic jobs. As if it’s a underbrush-choked trailhead.

The unsettling conversation involved a staffer who was unaware of the makeup of the biotechnology workforce and the job prospects for doctoral level scientists. The perception that NIH, NSF and HHMI funders care only about PhD attainment is still rampant throughout training program staff rank and file. It’s no secret I think each and every biomedical training grant PI should know (by heart) the data from the 2011 paper in which Cynthia Fuhrmann and coauthors write, “Since 2001, fewer than 20% of PhDs in the biological sciences have been moving into tenure-track academic positions within 5–6 yr of receiving a PhD. In fact, the most recent data (2006) show only 14% of these PhDs in tenure-track positions.”  (Where do the other 86% end up? Are they considered failures…really!? What are you doing to prepare or mentor the 86% for life-long learning?*)

CSUPERB faculty and leadership know that 80% of the jobs in the biotechnology sector (the life science industry) are filled by professionals with degrees at the masters degree or below.**  I am continually surprised (and – yes – shocked! shocked, I tell you!) to find out administrators, program officers, professors, postdocs and graduate students – who are part of this biomed/biotech ecosystem themselves – are unaware of this workforce reality. Perhaps paths to non-academic biomedical careers remain hidden because mentors, program officers and administrators themselves cannot see the trailheads through the trees on campus.

These workforce facts underpin CSUPERB’s ongoing efforts to offer Career Networking Sessions (CNS) and Graduate School Information Sessions for the 375+ CSU undergraduate and masters-level researchers attending the CSU Biotechnology Symposium each year. We’ve organized these two sessions the last seven years. As much as we’re tempted to tinker with the formats, they remain unchanged because alumni, mentors, and students all agree it works best for them.*** We are determined to build a mentoring network for our students. We don’t want to point them into the woods without a flashlight.

So in answer to Muindi and Keller – yes – the CSU has been doing our level best to “engage undergraduates about the various doors a PhD degree can open.”  But there is another communication point that can be made at that same time in a student’s career. They should also know there are many rewarding, great-paying life science career options that do not require a PhD degree.

Despite the very good intentions underpinning the article, Muindi and Keller fall back on well-trodden and tired “non-academic” options and emerging resources in their article. They un-ironically mention science policy fellowships, graduate data science programs, academic job boards like Vitae, and science conferences of interest to academic researchers. Perhaps science policy is an oft-cited, non-academic career example because academic researchers understand what program officers at NIH and NSF do.

I would have liked to see Muindi and Keller place more emphasis on the variety of career paths and employers in non-academic settings and point to established network opportunities and websites offered by professional societies like RAPS, ASQ, DIA or PMI. In my opinion no article on non-academic careers is complete without a nod to preclinical research, regulatory affairs, clinical or product development. See “Career Opportunities in Biotechnology and Drug Development,” by Toby Freedman, for the wide range of options available to academically-trained researchers. Researchers aiming to understand the world outside academia should find conferences attended by life science industry professionals, like BIO, DIA or the Personalized Medicine World Conference.

When approving CSU I-Corps travel requests, I look at conference programs to see that 50% (or more) of the speakers are from biotech or pharma companies to make sure teams will be able to network with and gain perspective from non-academic researchers, regulatory professionals, and commercialization experts. One CSU I-Corps faculty participant explains, “…it introduces you to the business world and forces you to actually meet with industry people. It really changes your perception of things, and [reveals] how different academia [is from] industry.” Without question CSU I-Corps reduces the gap between academic research and industry practice.

Happily Gura’s article pulls back the curtain on rewarding research jobs at start-up biotechnology companies. The premise – that these jobs are hidden – is what I take issue with here. Boston, San Francisco and San Diego are blessed with vibrant communities of biotechnology employees and companies – early-stage start-ups to big pharma companies.  Gura focuses on the boundary-spanning functions of incubators and entrepreneurship centers as a way to discover new and growing companies.  While these organizations host fantastic events, you can also stumble into a critical mass of start-up founders, employees and boundary-spanners at regional biotechnology industry organization meetings, breakfasts, networking events and workshops.

Here in California organizations like SARTA, San Diego Entrepreneurs Exchange, BIOCOM, OCRACalifornia Life Science Association and many others, host events weekly and post calendars for all to see.  All you have to do is Google “biotech event (your city/state).” (You’ll also see that many very early-stage start-ups advertise jobs on Craigslist!) Go ahead try it – it’s just that easy to unmask non-academic biotech and biomedical activities all around you…if you’re willing to get off-campus.  Admittedly this exercise works best if you live near a biotech/biomed industry hub.  Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective) most biotech industry hubs are also regions dealing with a glut of biomedical postdocs.

Educators and mentors should open doors for their students, not herd them into a chute toward professorships.  There is no question we need more female faculty members in engineering and computer science, more Latino/a faculty across the board, and an academic workforce that reflects our demographics. Any and all efforts to level access to academic careers is good, essential and very important work from where I sit. However, both underrepresented and well-represented researchers also deserve information about and access to careers – at all degree levels – in companies, national labs, government agencies and non-profit institutions as well.  Research mentors and policies should view non-academic employment as a desirable, normal (86%!), expected and worthwhile outcome.

Get out the energy bars, machetes and compasses!




*I’m thinking a lot about research mentoring this month. CSUPERB is organizing a session on the topic for our August 3 Faculty Consensus Group meeting at the CSU Chancellor’s Office.  Key personnel from the three NIH-funded CSU BUILD projects will present their approaches to research mentoring (CSU Long Beach, CSU Northridge and San Francisco State University).  In addition I’m hearing back from our Howell-CSUPERB Research Scholar alums as part of our annual reporting – they are doing great things nationwide! Look for a blog post about them in the future!

**It is important to understand that the life science industry is defined as including companies, businesses, research institutes, universities and national laboratories – the entire “ecosystem,” as we say. The best report I’ve seen about the life science industry workforce is the 2014 Talent Integration report issued by a group of California biotechnology industry associations and the California Community Colleges last year.

***When a CSU student chooses to attend the symposium two years in a row, they report it’s usually to attend one or both of these two sessions.  These students report they were overly-focused on presenting a research poster the first time they attended the symposium. They admit that they skipped out (...or spaced out) on these crucial programs the first time they attend.  The CNS format, in particular, is challenging for students. At the students’ request back in 2009, we do not organize a panel of talking heads or alumni telling career stories.   Instead students must engage in several rounds of roundtable discussions with alumni and professionals working in the industry.  I think Muindi & Keller would agree this session format models the behavior they recommend to readers, that is, that trainees “must be active participants in their future and use all available resources to learn about available career paths.”

Articles cited:

Muindi, F. & Keller, J.B. Emerging network of resources for exploring paths beyond academia. Nature Biotechnology 33, 775–778 (2015). doi:10.1038/nbt.3282
Published online 08 July 2015.

Gura, T. (2015) A hidden start. Science Careers.  Published online 01 July 2015.

C. N. Fuhrmann, C.N., Halme, D.G.,  O’Sullivan, P.S. & Lindstaedt, B. Improving Graduate Education to Support a Branching Career Pipeline: Recommendations Based on a Survey of Doctoral Students in the Basic Biomedical Sciences. CBE Life Sciences 10, 239-249 (2011). doi: 10.1187/cbe.11-02-0013

Photo credit:

Applause & Pain for AmeriCorps


I’d like to share photos from yesterday’s moving close-of-service luncheon for the first class of CSU STEM VISTAs – an AmeriCorps program.  It was a lovely event at Rancho Los Alamitos next to the CSU Long Beach campus.   Our own Shannon Palka was selected by her peers to do the “closing thanks” for the group.  Afterwards Shannon and I agreed that we haven’t really come to grips her public service stint at CSUPERB is ending!

I am not sure it’s been captured anywhere at the CSU STEM VISTA program level yet – but I was asked to present our first year CSU I-Corps experience at the National Innovation Network (NIN) meeting in Reston, Virginia, last month. To remind infrequent readers, CSU I-Corps is a systemwide entrepreneurship education program for curious researchers and nascent academic entrepreneurs funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).  We are already finding it to be a highly engaging student program with surprisingly large dividends of learning and commercialization activities systemwide. I didn’t realize before attending NIN that I was one of only a handful of I-Corps Nodes/Sites asked to present our first year experience.

There is no group more demanding and perfectionist than the CSUPERB program office. We tend to think all 23 campuses will show up for all our programs.  So we were a bit daunted that “only”  34 teams, 116 students and 24 faculty members from 9 universities have signed up for I-Corps in our first year. Apparently NSF thought that was pretty good for a $100,000/year investment.

I received a surprising burst of applause, shouts and hoots from the audience when I said 44% of the year-one CSU I-Corps participants are female.  Afterwards people told me this is a significantly higher female participation rate than many of the other more engineering/computer science-heavy I-Corps programs.  The other reaction I got to my presentation was amazement that CSU campuses (and colleges) would work together to offer programs like this – it was a culture unfamiliar to some participants.  These are features I take for granted in my job.  But the NIN meeting served to remind me our efforts to build and nurture this systemwide, diverse (in many ways!) community are not insignificant; new programs like CSU I-Corps and investments in CSUPERB build upon our 30 year history and a deep base of good will.

These early CSU I-Corps outcomes are also the result of Shannon’s student outreach. Despite our formidable CSUPERB community, we historically do our work through faculty and research office networks, as well as chair and deans’ councils. For I-Corps to go systemwide, we need connections to student groups.  Shannon’s effectiveness was also due to her ability to fit into the CSUPERB program office team and her willingness to just dive into (or work around) our unforgiving administrative calendar of rotating programs and events.  I wish she could have been in Reston to hear that applause.

So yesterday I clapped long and loud for the CSU STEM VISTAs. This is an outstanding group of motivated, strategic thinkers – a really remarkable group of young leaders.  It was an honor to be a part of this.

In the midst of this emotional week for the nation and our program office, I learned that Congress has proposed cutting AmeriCorps programs.  Even as we make progress on many complicated policy fronts across this nation – we still manage to trip up on little things that matter.  As Pell grants and biomedical research received additional funding, AmeriCorps will face deep cuts.  This kind of short-term, give-and-take, winners-and-losers process is a constant in national policy, budget negotiations and priority setting, but I find it so disappointing to watch tiny programs like AmeriCorps get swept under the losers rug.

The day before I heard this bitter news, I had a meeting about a Kresge Foundation-funded project around student success.  The CSU faculty and administrators on the project all pointed to the pain point* around the need for temporary help (people = release time or human resources!) in ramping up programs and experimenting with new approaches around student success initiatives. We know that impactful and effective STEM programs require cross-divisional collaboration, relationship-building and even culture change before they become part of the fabric of how students learn.  The VISTA program addresses this very real (and painful) pain point for resource-challenged organizations like ours, as well as non-profit and community service programs nationwide.

I’m hoping some of you might have read this far, are willing to invest in a longer-view of community service, and be moved** to contact your legislators to restore this little program with such a large impact on resource-limited programs, economically distressed communities, and promising young people nationwide.


*Pain point is an I-Corps phrase that comes from Alex Osterwalder’s Value Proposition Design and other writings on understanding customer or market needs.

Melding Cultures

We’re a week away from the 27th Annual CSU Biotechnology Symposium and I can guarantee you we’re not ready (yet)!  We’re in the “final details” stage. We’re finding typos and mistakes in our program (published online this year for the first time!), printing table signs and packing boxes to ship to Santa Clara.  But – we’re shutting down here for the New Year holiday and so I can’t help but be pensive.

I find the best break in the action and – simultaneously – a way to keep in touch with the big picture during hectic times at work is to find time to read.  I usually read for a couple of hours in the morning, and again at the end of the day. The morning reads, especially, clear my mind for writing and the tens of emails I’ll compose in a given day at CSUPERB. I’m omnivorous (scientific journals, newspapers, books on higher education, blogs, nordic noir, etc.).  But 2014 definitely tilted my reading to electronic formats over hardcopy.  I also found myself leaning increasingly on Twitter and Feedly to find new, challenging, simply delightful, and kind-of-weird delightful stuff. This open access to global thought (and, yes, silliness) is a huge change from my early days as a scientist when the quality of your campus library often dictated whether you were working at the bleeding edge or reinventing wheels. What a change in culture.

As the symposium takes flight, we’re also working on a new three-year strategic plan. We’re about 2/3 of the way through a planning process started at the August 2014 Faculty Consensus Group meeting.  Luckily I’m working with the Strategic Planning Council on this project.  I read something today that explained why our strategic planning retreat went so smoothly, “Participants need several years of regular meetings to build up enough experience with each other to recognize and appreciate the common motivation behind their different efforts. They need time to see that their own interests will be treated fairly, and that decisions will be made on the basis of objective evidence and the best possible solution to the problem, not to favor the priorities of one organization over another.”  This is a part of CSUPERB culture of which I am very proud; we were not so aligned eight (short!) years ago.

One reason for past discord was the multiple disciplines – biology, chemistry, math, business, engineering – that come together under CSUPERB’s programmatic umbrella. We speak different languages. Despite our harmonious retreat in November, one theme that emerged from our conversations and our fall faculty surveys was the need to build even stronger and more effective internal (within-the-CSU) partnerships. Our old explanation for why CSUPERB faculty banded together was to build “critical mass” across our chronically underfunded public university. But I think the underpinning reasons for the CSUPERB faculty’s desire to collaborate has shifted to reflect how information is shared, science is done and teaching practice has evolved in 2014. We currently support biology and math collaborations (a theme of one of our symposium workshops). Internal collaboration might mean academic affairs and student affairs working together – intentionally and tightly – to help all students persist to a STEM degree.  It might also mean working together across campuses to offer innovative, “massively-parallel-undergraduate” research opportunities around a real-world genomics research project.  It might mean melding business and science/engineering faculties to better teach biotechnology commercialization concepts.  All of these collaborations serve to set students up for success in college and in the world after graduation.  It’s a good thing for students – but how can faculty and administrators get better at it without losing needed disciplinary expertise and perspectives within the university?

I’m thankful – as always – for the multi-disciplinary voices and opinions shared with me in person and online as we do this work. CSUPERB’s work won’t end with the year – we have plenty to do in 2015 (like that symposium Jan. 8-10th!)!  A happy New Year to you all!

Readings for the New Year

Lior Pachter (December 2014) The two cultures of mathematics and biology.  Bits of DNA Blog.

Amy Celep & Sara Brenner (October 2014) Integrating Intentional Influence into Your Strategy. Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Mark J. Graham, Jennifer Frederick, Angela Byars-Winston, Anne-Barrie Hunter, Jo Handelsman (2013) Increasing Persistence of College Students in STEM. Science Vol. 341: pp. 1455-1456. 

John Kania & Mark Kramer (Winter 2011) Collective Impact. Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Dana O’Donovan & Noah Rimland (January 2013) The Strategic Plan is Dead. Long Live StrategyStanford Social Innovation Review.

Chris Newfield (December 2014) Trends We Can Work With: Higher Ed in 2015. Remaking the University Blog.



2014 CSUPERB Leadership Award

Last Thursday CSUPERB presented its inaugural Leadership Award to Rollin Richmond, President of Humboldt State and Chair of the CSUPERB President’s Commission.

The CSUPERB Faculty Consensus Group (FCG) voted twice on this award.  First – at the January FCG meeting – they voted to establish the award to “honor any individual whose work has contributed in extraordinary ways to the advancement of CSUPERB or the field of biotechnology.”  Second – in February – they voted to honor President Richmond with the inaugural award.

Mike Goldman (Chair of Biology at San Francisco State University and Chair, CSUPERB FCG) and I travelled up to Arcata to present the award to President Richmond.  We were successful in elbowing our way onto the agenda of a retirement reception the campus and community organized to honor President Richmond.  The citation etched on the glass block we gave him said, “in recognition of his leadership and advocacy for stem cell research training grants and undergraduate research opportunities.”


Knowing we were followed on the agenda by the mayor of Arcata and other more familiar campus dignitaries (including the impressive Marching Lumberjacks), we kept our remarks very short: “President Richmond’s advocacy led to over $42 million in stem cell research training grants to the CSU from the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) – funding over 600 student researchers from 14 different CSU universities since 2009.  Since 2012 the CSUPERB Presidents’ Commission Scholars program has supported 40 undergraduate biotechnology researchers. These programs are the direct legacy of President Richmond’s leadership and advocacy.”

Of course I have more to say about President Richmond.  Rollin is a card-carrying geneticist.  I think he likes working with CSUPERB (and why I like working with him) because the next best thing to doing science is investing in and supporting up-and-coming scientists and ventures.

He was the chair of the search committee that hired me into this job; so I’ve known him ever since my return to academia as part of the CSU.  I remember President Steve Weber (San Diego State University, now retired) and President Richmond “tag teamed” the recruitment phone calls after they offered me the job.  I took some convincing because I also had an offer on the table from a biotech company.  Both gentlemen were eloquent on the impact I could have on science and engineering students across California and honest about the time it would take to have that impact (a decade).

As soon as I arrived March 2007, my very first meeting was with President Richmond and the CSUPERB stem cell taskforce.  They were intent on making sure CSU students would be eligible for CIRM support.  After – well – let’s say many months (not a decade) – of advocacy, the CIRM board approved the Bridges to Stem Cell Research (“Bridges”) training program.  President Richmond took the handful of us CSU folks who were at the meeting out to lunch in Sacramento to celebrate.  I’ll never forget the feelings of relief and accomplishment we had (I’m not sure we ate!) – but also our great admiration for Rollin’s stubborn, never-say-die persistence on behalf of future student researchers. By the time we left the restaurant, we planned two Bridges proposal writing workshops (one hosted at Humboldt State, of course) for CSU faculty and administrators.

Today I searched how many entry-level job openings there are in California for stem cell scientists (~40, depending on how you count; the search link is maintained on our Biocompass website).  Thanks to President Richmond’s advocacy and support, I know hundreds of CSU graduates are eligible for those jobs after working as stem cell research interns and we’re not even a decade into the Bridges training program.

Based on data we collected earlier this year, we know 44% of the Bridges graduates find jobs at universities and companies. The remainder enroll in doctoral research programs and other professional degree programs. The majority of CSU San Marcos (80%) and San Jose State University (60%) Bridges graduates are employed at companies, including Pfizer, Genentech, Millipore Corporation, Stemgent and Escape Therapeutics. These two particular CSU programs offer regulatory affairs, project management and clinical trials management as part of their curriculum. Their graduates often find jobs before completion of their degree programs – reflecting the market demand for stem cell researchers with biomedical product development knowledge and interest. We also have longitudinal data showing that the first class of Bridges graduates are moving on from their post-graduation jobs – often academic laboratory technician positions – to graduate school or more lucrative research and product development positions in company settings. This is the flow we hoped to develop. The ideas, skills and lessons learned by these graduates help build individual careers, but also provide a key element in the development of regenerative medicine science and industry here in California.

For these reasons, I think President Richmond is deserving of an award that recognizes “extraordinary contributions to the…field of biotechnology.”  His impact has certainly been extraordinary – in less than a decade! – if using CSUPERB and the Bridges program as a lens.  CSUPERB and I thank him from the bottom of our hearts.  I’m also hoping his example can inspire strategic leaders and advocates going forward!




Student Researchers & Entrepreneurs Here, There and Everywhere!

Last week I had the opportunity to speak at this year’s first informational hearing convened by the Assembly’s Select Committee on Biotechnology.  They wanted to hear about how California can “improve STEM education in K-12 and the universities to ensure a sufficient pipeline of individuals qualified to work in research areas.”  As you might guess I had a hard time keeping my testimony to 7 minutes! I did manage to recommend increased investment in “high-impact” practices (HIPs), including undergraduate research.  I really do need a T-shirt or a flag that says, “Hands-on, project-based, research team experience is the number one life science industry workforce need!”

Interestingly I attended meetings discussing HIPs yesterday and today.  I wish some of the Assembly members could have participated and learned from them – there are so many evidence-based and intentional efforts to continually improve undergraduate STEM education going on across the CSU and the nation.

Ken O’Donnell hosted the first one; Ken works in the CSU Office of the Chancellor, thinks a lot about student engagement and success, and is one of my favorite grant proposal writing partners.  The group Ken hosted is working to figure out how to track how often CSU students encounter HIPs as they progress toward a degree.  Looking only from a research, project-based perspective (there are six or so other HIPs in addition), we’re really good at tracking classes that students take – but do those classes incorporate open-ended research projects, like the Cal Poly bacterial fingerprinting project? These courses don’t send students online to watch videos or to a “cook-book” lab. Instead they embrace the campus as a “living lab” and use technology to collect and analyze real-world data (now that’s my idea of technology-enabled science education and you don’t need lab space for 1000 students!).  Do our students participate in experiential learning experiences like service-learning, community-partnered projects, or the CSUPERB-I2P Biotech Commercialization Challenge? Do students find internships at biotechnology companies off-campus? These experiences allow students to practice their technical knowledge even though they may not be categorized by some as “gold-standard” independent research (sigh). The CSU – along with groups like the Business Higher Education Forum – would like to know more about how HIPs strand through a student’s experience, how they impact progress toward a degree, and their influence on a student’s post-graduate trajectory.

The second meeting was a webinar given by Ellen Goldey (Wofford College) as part of our work on the W.M. Keck Foundation-funded STEM Education Effectiveness Framework Project.  Working on the PULSE project, Dr. Goldey and others have thought very carefully about what effective undergraduate STEM education might look like. Needless to say, it intentionally encompasses active learning and HIPs – embedded and extra-curricular; it doesn’t involve a seamless gauntlet of lectures or powerpoint slide-decks online.

FlippedClassroom2According to Goldey and her colleagues (and a deep stack of educational research), effective STEM education looks instead a lot like the Flipped Classroom 101 workshop we hosted at the annual CSU Biotechnology Symposium.  The folks in this photo? They are CSU faculty – not students. They loved that workshop – many of them said it was the one thing they’d remember about the symposium. Why? Well – they are scientists and engineers and they really like DOING open-ended, hands-on science and solving problems. Just as we’d expect the students who would like to become scientists and engineers might feel. We all recognize that these HIPs are the way students learn how to become scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs and – yes – the future workforce.

I still worry that testimonies, T-shirts and databases don’t have the impact on policy makers that meeting student researchers and entrepreneurs might. Student voices and stories provide compelling evidence that the “kids will be alright,” given access to high-quality college learning opportunities.  Maybe pictures are the next best thing. We’ve posted photos from the 2014 CSU Biotechnology symposium here, here and here. I don’t think you’ll see a disengaged or under-achieving student in any of them.


“I do have an industry partner!”

Last week I gave a 15-minute talk on university-industry partnering.

Just stop and think about that assignment!  Way back in October when I said “yes” to Jay Turkkan, SFSU’s Associate VP of Research, she was offering me 30 minutes.  Even that was a tall order for such a vast topic!

While I’ve thought a lot over my career about what makes a partnership work, I’ve not done scholarly research on the topic like some of my fellow panelists.  But many of us recognize some basic truths, whether we’ve worked on small teams or large, complex partnered research projects.  Interestingly all four panelists talked about “shared goals,” “shared vision,” and/or “shared values” in the context of collaborations. Here at CSUPERB we use the “shared goals” terminology in our Entrepreneurial Joint Venture program RFP.*

Oftentimes press releases touting university-industry partnerships fail to articulate shared goals and you can read misalignment from the announcement alone.  Strategic industry partnerships are much more than a collection of logos to feature on a website or members on a 40-person advisory board.  Over time partnerships will do work together, they will advance ideas together, they will build infrastructure together. Together they might make things better and more efficient or they might discover technical potholes or flaws in their approaches.  If it’s not about work, it’s all public relations (PR) in my opinion.

The UIDP has a much more politic and informed way of describing university-industry partnerships. They describe a continuum. “Phase One” partnering work might be cheap or free to do or it might be focused merely on connecting two people on the phone.  As relationships develop, the work can become more complex and strategic.  If you think about it, this continuum idea really does reflect how collaborations and friendships develop – you meet at a conference networking reception and you find yourself writing grant proposals six months later!

My main point to the SFSU audience was that partnered work needs to meaningfully address shared goals. This (Baxter) rule applies to both PI-to-PI and organization-to-organization partnerships. These are not fee-for-service agreements, they are not a loan of instrument time, they are not a short-term lease on some bench-space, they are not an annual meeting.  Further – they can’t be forced.  No matter how much money is on the table or alumni excitement is behind a proposal, if there isn’t an equally eager, engaged partner on the other side of the table no meaningful work will result.**

I have some nifty partnership continuum “data” from the 26th Annual CSU Biotechnology Symposium.  Because of a particularly pernicious software bug, we had to “hand-crank” poster author lists that included external partners.  So here in the program office we knew very well that 20% of the research posters presented at the symposium involved external partners from 57 different organizations.

We – and others – have noted that fewer than 5-10% of life sciences faculty get involved in commercialization activities.  It turns out about 5% of the posters presented at the symposium in January listed company-based poster authors.  I do not think all faculty and students have to “buy in” to life science commercialization partnerships and competitions, like the I2P Challenge. But there is a self-selected minority who have personal interests, goals and aspirations that lead them to develop commercial research and development partnerships. Should that percentage be higher?  I’ll leave that to the economists – but I do have an anecdote to share on that point.

After I gave my presentation,*** a faculty member approached me and said she didn’t think a talk on university-industry partnerships pertained to her world.  But after listening to the discussion, she exclaimed “I do have an industry partner!”  From what I gleaned (I may not have all the details exactly right), she has a long-term research collaboration supported by an uninterrupted string of federal grants. At the start of the collaboration, her co-PI was working at another university.  But as the work progressed, that collaborator left academia to start a medical device company. The pair continues to consult with each other and write joint grant proposals and manuscripts. The SFSU professor viewed this relationship as a personal collaboration – not a corporate one  – and would not have described it as an industrial or commercialization partnership. I think this one-on-one, collegial, “organic” knowledge transfer is at the root of all successful partnerships. Whether there should be a CRADA**** in place is a blog post for another day.

Many of us in public higher education might argue the “porousness” of ideas is a public good we offer our students, our communities and our nation.  Given the long years it takes to develop a biotechnology idea into a product, collegial relationships are surely at the root of new life science technology development, start-up companies and regional economic development. How we forge those partnerships – via personal networks grown over years or via a formal contract between organizations – probably doesn’t matter all that much as long as we articulate shared goals up front.



*2014 Entrepreneurial Joint Venture Grant proposals are due Monday, Feb. 3rd, at 5pm pacific time!

** Not even a grant proposal (I’ve blogged before about Dr. Chin’s memorable comments about the difficulty in forming multi-disciplinary grant-writing teams at Harvard).  Dr. Turkkan and I both have stories of wonderful friendships resulting from failed partnerships, however.

***An expanded version of my SFSU presentation is here.  I’ve gussied it up a little to stand on its own without my stories and corny “thumbs-up” hand gestures.  You’ll find a series of citations and resources from which to learn about university-industry partnerships and open innovation. If you dig you may even learn something about crowdsourcing.

****CRADA is an acronym for Cooperative Research And Development Agreement.

A personal view from San Diego

Today the Voice of San Diego (VoSD) published a perspective I wrote on the San Diego biotechnology cluster.  (Since I don’t get many comments here on the blog I’m steeling myself for the comment thread there!)

Life science companies and research organizations – and thus, biotech jobs – tend to cluster in a handful of places around the state: the Bay Area and San Diego are usually listed as the “big two,” but Los Angeles/Orange County and Sacramento also boast clusters of research institutions, medical device, diagnostics and biopharma companies. The Central Valley and Imperial Valley are sprouting biofuels and synthetic biology companies too.  I searched for a good article about California’s different biotech clusters for the VoSD perspective but couldn’t find one I thought would explain the landscape to readers.  Most “regional cluster” articles focus on rankings and are biased in one way or another (“ranking” the clusters is an endless debate of questionable importance). Suffice it to say – each cluster has its own character.

What I think is important from a jobs or career perspective is the “critical mass” of companies – new, established, big, small, biopharma, agricultural, diagnostics, biofuels, etc.  My opinion is that a region isn’t a true cluster until it employs generations of scientists, engineers, business development experts, and financial wizards at many, diverse kinds of organizations (company, research institute, university, etc.). Biotechnology product development takes so much longer to commercialize than the typical web-based platform or wireless app. And – honestly – the majority of biotech companies don’t survive as long as it takes to get a product to the market (or to patients).  So from a personal career perspective – when you join a biotech company you might want to keep an eye on the job market if you need to find a new job (I’ve written about this before).  Likewise – companies typically sprout where they can find savvy biotech business people, regulatory profesionals, and expert researchers.

CSUPERB program office is at San Diego State University for three reasons: 1) the program was first supported by SDSU President Day ~25 years ago, 2) the CSUPERB community wants the program office located within a biotech cluster for industry-university partnership reasons, and 3) I worked in San Diego before taking the job with CSUPERB, so I was happy to keep the program office here when I was hired six years ago. I have a large network of friends, former colleagues and past employees here in San Diego. We still run into each other online, at the grocery store, along hiking trails and at biotech industry events. So – when Kelly Bennett at VoSD asked me to write about the San Diego biotech cluster, I agreed, even though I see California’s life science community through a statewide lens now.  I also decided to try to write to a (more) general audience in response to all the exhortations from AAAS and others who are encouraging scientists to “speak up” about our lives, our science and our careers.  This biotech world of ours seems confusing, overly complicated, and opaque to too many people; I’m hoping the perspective sheds a little bit of light on the “ecosystem!”