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!”

Spring Grants and Peer Review

It’s been a quiet month on the blog, but April is an important month at CSUPERB so we need to celebrate!

We announced the CSUPERB “major grant” awards and the Presidents’ Commission Scholars this week.  The Faculty-Student Collaborative Research Grants and the Presidents’ Commission Scholars are two of the most popular CSUPERB programs, as gauged by campus participation. So our normally quiet office enjoyed the email buzz from students, PIs, chairs and deans this week!

Campus participation defined by applications received from each campus to CSUPERB grant program, award program or as symposium registration. Data shown for AY06/07 – AY12/13.

Campus participation defined by applications received from each campus to CSUPERB grant program, award program or as symposium registration. Data shown for AY06/07 – AY12/13.

CSUPERB made 36 grant awards totaling $574,685 to CSU faculty at 17 CSU universities. Awards were made as part of four competitive CSUPERB grant programs: New Investigator, Research Development, Entrepreneurial Joint Venture and Programmatic Development. Faculty review panels evaluated 95 proposals from principal investigators (PIs) at 19 different CSU campuses. Averaged across the four programs, awards were made to 38% of the proposals received.

I use the scare quotes around “major grants” because these are the largest awards CSUPERB makes, but they are all seed grants that pay out $15,000 – 25,000 spent over 18 months.  The aim of these programs is to support preliminary work that can lead to follow-on funding from external agencies and organizations.  These follow-on grants support collaborative faculty-student research, innovative educational programs, and knowledge and technology transfer.  The reality of biotechnology-related scholarship is that significant funds (>$15k/year) are needed to support research programs.  Students gain deep learning opportunities working with PIs or participating in courses that are built on faculty scholarship.  As a consequence grant-getting is fundamental to biotechnology education and research.  We wish all our new PIs the best of luck in the lab, field and clinic!

Sixteen undergraduate researchers, the 2013 Presidents’ Commission Scholars, will be carrying out faculty‐mentored biotechnology research projects on 12 different CSU campuses this summer.  CSUPERB provides $8000 to support these summer research projects. This year’s request for proposals invited applications from CSU students early in their academic career.  The majority of applications were still from students in or starting their junior (3rd) year, but the selection committee funded freshman and sophomores as well.  Jaimey Homen, a chemistry student finishing her first year at Sonoma State University, will be working with Dr. Carmen Works to characterize photochemically activated molecules.  The group’s long-term goal is to engineer molecules that deliver carbon monoxide (CO) to specifically protect certain biological tissues. For context, CO has been shown previously to improve organ transplant survival rates.  Ms. Homen became interested in undergraduate research opportunities and met Dr. Works by participating in SSU’s Freshman Learning Community.  We hope Ms. Homen and the other 2013 Scholars have a wonderful summer!

CSUPERB’s peer review process starts in February when proposals are received.  This spring 57 faculty from 20 CSU campuses worked on six different proposal review panels.  The major grants were reviewed at meetings April 13-14 in San Jose; four different panels discussed and evaluated proposals that weekend.  The travel grants and Presidents’ Commission Scholar applications are reviewed by panels working on the internet and by teleconference.  Overall our faculty reviewers do a great job selecting promising research projects to fund.  For every major grant dollar awarded by CSUPERB between 2004 and 2010, PIs went on to win $14 (a 1400% fiscal “return on investment”) in grants from external organizations.  This, of course, is a direct credit to the excellent and competitive faculty scholars at work in the CSU.

We celebrate and justify our grant programs by pointing to the fiscal return-on-investment, but we also monitor student impact and knowledge transfer (publications, collaborations).  But any measure of peer review “success” must come with an acceptance of failure as well.  Not all the engineered strains survive, not all the experiments work, not all the hypotheses pan out.  Not all the PIs write well-crafted follow-on grant proposals, not all the research collaborations hold together, not all the innovative ideas find a good fit at a funding agency or an angel investing group.  Some ideas are ahead of their time, some skate too close to the bleeding edge, some are out of step with prevailing opinions. We teach our students and assistant professors that their success will depend on their ability to shake off failure and move on to write the next draft, design the next experiment, or repeat the test until it’s significant.  Some of those successes will come within the year, but scientific triumphs often take longer than we expect or come later in a career than hoped.

Expert scientists, engineers and clinicians are familiar and comfortable with these truths. None of us can predict the research projects that will work or have the greatest impact on society. But if we don’t talk about the failures inherent in scientific research and development, unintended and “disastrous”* consequences result.

Scientific peer review came under increased congressional scrutiny this week.**  Rep. Lamar Smith challenged the National Science Foundation (NSF) peer review processes and proposed new review criteria.   Rep. Smith went on to request access to the “scientific/technical reviews and Program Officers Review Analysis” for five specific NSF grants.  Yesterday President Obama defended scientific peer review during a talk at the National Academy of Science, stating, “I will keep working to make sure that our scientific research does not fall victim to political maneuvers or agendas that in some ways would impact on the integrity of the scientific process.”

Faculty reviewers and PIs probably don’t think often enough on the integrity underlying our peer review systems.  More often we grumble about nit-picking reviewers, the lack of high-risk, high-impact ideas, program officers’ insistence on well-written, on-time reviews, and the dearth of funds needed to support biotechnology innovation.  But if we sit back and ponder the implications of Rep. Smith’s requests to NSF, we suddenly see the wonder and power of our grass-roots, peer-driven national science agenda.  This is a process that serves to select the best science as-we-see-it, to plant the seeds of new technologies and therapies, and to train generations of the nation’s best-and-brightest scientists, engineers and clinicians.  The U.S. peer review systems underlying our research and development enterprise aren’t always pretty or perfect or innovative, but like our democracy, they’re highly regarded worldwide despite inherent incrementalism and consensus-building.  The corollary is that the aggregate outcome of peer review is the aggregate outcome*** of our nation’s research enterprise that remains envied worldwide.

Can we improve the system? Sure.  Even at CSUPERB we evaluate our programs, iterate our processes, and tune the strategic intent of our grant programs.  We do that with significant input from the expert science and engineering faculty involved with the program. We adjust to the budgets supplied by the taxpayers via the California legislature and the governor.  We keep our eyes on how biotechnology is defined by the external life science community. But – as of yet – we have not had to change how and what biotechnology research we fund in response to political pressure of any kind.

I understand the politicians in Washington, D.C. hold the purse-strings, but I sincerely hope political committees will not dictate how and what American science is done going forward.  To go that unscientific and undemocratic route would, indeed, be disastrous to our research and development enterprise.



* Characterization attributed to Bruce Alberts at Nature Blogs.

**The blogosphere is just getting heated up about this political power-grab of peer review, but some good context is provided by Derek Lowe and The AmericanScience bloggers. 

***U.S. research outcomes can be reported many different ways, for example, see NSF’s measures and outcomes and Ben Bernanke’s take.

Assessing Entrepreneurial Education

We’re getting ready to kick off the 2014 CSUPERB – Idea-to-Product (I2P(R)) Early-Stage Biotechnology Commercialization Challenge.  But I want to put a wrap on the 2013 Challenge.  It was a doozy and is worthy of its own blog post (here’s the official (draft) 2-pager almost ready for next week’s kick-off).

Working behind the scenes I saw the incredible passion and verve the student teams brought to the competition in Anaheim.  But I also had the fly-on-the-wall view of the entire process and can attest these students (and their faculty mentors) travelled along an exceedingly steep (and sharp) learning curve.  This is no competition for tired, risk-adverse biotechnologists.

CSUPERB is by no means the only organization looking for effective and meaningful formats for entrepreneurship education.*  When we began evaluating platforms and formats, there were many models for technology commercialization throughout the California State University from which to learn.  San Diego State and CSU San Bernardino partnered on CCAT, a federally funded project to commercialize technologies critical to homeland security and national defense. That project team can report out on its effectiveness in terms of leveraged funding, sales, license agreements and merger and acquisition (M&A) activity.  Likewise many CSU campuses host Small Business Development Centers; several have technology expertise and assist with the commercialization of technology product or services.  These groups judge success based on new company formation and capital financing, among other metrics.

But when surveyed, the CSU biotechnology community focused firmly on educational needs and outcomes, not financing to cross valleys of death or infrastructure to accelerate new company formation.  The most common question posed by CSU researchers was, “What is needed to take a life science idea to a commercial product?”  Students and faculty asked CSUPERB to reduce the gap in knowledge (& culture) between basic researchers and their commercial world counterparts.

Faculty and administrators at San Jose State University and CSU East Bay had experience with the University of Texas at Austin’s Idea-to-Product competition platform.  Terri Swartz (dean of business at CSU East Bay, now retired) introduced us to Steven Nichols at UT Austin.  The two of them thought the I2P format would work well for biotechnology commercialization; they had seen a handful of biotech teams compete successfully in the global competition.  I2P coordinators define program success as improved skills working in multidisciplinary teams, increased understanding of the technology commercialization process and the bolstering of cross-disciplinary collaborations on campus.  That seemed like a good match for the CSU biotech community’s needs.

The main advantage of the I2P format in our two years’ of experience is that it’s not a business plan competition.  We like to think we’re special in biotechnology.  When biotech product developers address unmet needs related to human health and nutrition, they face unique regulatory hurdles and complicated markets. Students need to understand the exceedingly high standards of product safety.  But it’s usually customer definition that derails student entrepreneurs. Scientists and engineers fall in love with their technologies; they are typically motivated by the need to “help people.”  But rarely does a patient buy a drug or device or medical supply directly from a company.  There are layers upon layers of buyers and agencies between patients and companies.  Each year we see I2P teams run into this “buzz-saw” as they figure out who exactly their initial customers really are.  It is this initial market and customer definition (and refinement!) that characterizes the biotech I2P competition and knocks teams out.

Again, we are not the first to recognize this as the most important hurdle technology entrepreneurs must surmount. Many of us who limped out of the early 2000’s biotech bubble burned alarming amounts of cash refining product concepts (and business plans) on the fly.  Steve Blank and colleagues developed the Lean LaunchPad framework and curriculum (open, free access!) based on their belief that entrepreneurs needed greater agility. The NSF I-Corps Nodes offer entrepreneurship education to researchers based on Lean LaunchPad; Bay Area universities just won a new award and will use the framework for biotechnology commercialization.  Because Blank and his colleagues are firmly focused on new company formation, I’ll be curious to see if they are (more) successful “spinning” out successful biotech companies than normal.  Biotech is a slow, cruel, expensive and risky sector compared to social media, computer hardware, wireless applications and other (more) direct markets (yes, we’re special).

So – how well did the 2014 CSUPERB-I2P challenge meet the CSU’s need for entrepreneurship education?**  I’m going to focus on student learning outcomes here (one of these days I’ll write about faculty learning as well!).

The students involved this year started out as true biotech newbies.  I’ll say it here – there was no performance difference whatsoever between graduate students and undergraduates; they are on equal footing in this arena (others have noted the same!).  Only one student reported having a family member working in a biotechnology company.  A surprising percentage (73%) had never worked on a biotechnology project before!  They signed up for the CSUPERB-I2P challenge for a variety of reasons (click on the chart below to see a bigger version).  Most students credit the influence of a faculty mentor; only one student team dragged their mentor into the fray (he says he was merely a point-of-contact and didn’t help them at all; my guess is he’s vastly underestimating his contributions).  Lesson learned: Faculty remain the major influencers and mentors leading to team success.


The teams reported on their tactics after the competition ended. The successful teams definitely put more hours ( > 80 hrs/each) into the competition than other finalists. Lesson Learned: As teams form true time and effort expectations should be set and agreed upon by all. Corollary: I2P “teams” can involve more than four students up to the “team declaration” deadline.

Lesson Learned: The hallmark of successful I2P competitors is the strength of their expert network and customer outreach.  We were somewhat surprised at how little some teams did on that front (again, click on the next image below to make it bigger). Unlike the Lean LaunchPad platform, the I2P format is not built on a series of classes or lectures.  The I2P Challenge is designed as a “layer” on top of entrepreneurial infrastructure (clubs or courses or collaborations) already in place on campus for students to tap into. We encourage mentors to help knit together a community for student teams. As Warren Smith (2-time winning CSUPERB-I2P mentor) says, “it takes a village.” For the 2014 challenge, CSUPERB is lining up help from Small Business Development Centers to provide “instant” or “pop-up” expert networks for student teams.  We’d encourage alumni networks to form around campus teams, as well.

Surprisingly the two finalist teams – Thrombin from Sac State and Abiotic from Cal Poly Pomona – were built on completely different infrastructures.  Sac State has an enviable entrepreneurial infrastructure in place now; Thrombin took full advantage of it.  Abiotic on the other hand had “nothing” according to their mentor (of course, his investment in that team shines through!). Their effort was entirely student-fueled – including connections to an entrepreneurs’ club and the Pasadena Bioscience Collaborative, a biotech incubator (and the 2013 competition sponsor).


We asked both faculty mentors and student team members to report out on learning gains.  This is a self-reported data, of course, but I was thrilled to see that nearly everyone (93%) agreed they experienced large or very-large gains in understanding biotechnology customers and initial markets. I am intrigued that only 47% reported a (large or very large) gain in confidence (feeling like a scientist/engineer/entrepreneur).  The finalist teams competing in Anaheim made tremendous, goose-bump-inducing gains in communication skills, presentation effectiveness and broad-based understanding of their product concept between Thursday’s preliminary round and Saturday’s final presentation.  We saw one team member correct a judge on a regulatory issue; the student contestant was mortified….but she was correct and the judge made sure she heard that in the final feedback session.  My guess is that any and all of the I2P finalists gained a realistic understanding of what is needed to commercialize biotechnologies; that’s a humbling realization with which many venture capitalists might identify!  Lesson Learned: Teams will continue to evolve product concepts and learn in real time after the preliminary judging at the symposium. Corollary: Teams should expect to work around the clock at the symposium. Corollary 2: The CSUPERB-I2P finalists are some of the most “coachable” management teams with which I’ve worked.


Lastly we asked students how the 2013 I2P experience might have impacted their career plans.  A third of them are running away from biotech and into a job unrelated to the buzz saw they experienced.   We know that 80% of the students involved in the competition are within a year of completing their degree programs; it’s certain that at least a third of these accomplished students might already have a career path in finance, accounting and other engineering fields worked out.  I’d like to think some of them might “come back” after stints in consulting firms and social media companies!  I say that because 73% of students report they can see themselves working on technology commercialization teams in the future.  Lesson Learned: Most students viewed the CSUPERB-I2P challenge as a “capstone” educational opportunity.


These outcomes are pretty exciting to me personally; I think this year’s judges would agree.  We’ve been a-buzz since the January finals, making contacts and building expert networks for the 2014 CSUPERB-I2P Challenge.   We’ve already lined up sponsors for the 2014 Challenge; Pasadena Bioscience Collaborative and the Tech Futures Group have signed on as sponsors (Many thanks! We’re open to more sponsors, of course!).

Oh – and did I mention that one company formed as a result of the competition and it has purchase orders from customers in hand? Other teams received about $50,000 in financing after the competition.  So – there are true business outcomes from the CSU biotechnology entrepreneurial education challenge.  We wish all 2013 CSUPERB-I2P student finalists the very best…our economy and society will depend on this next generation; something innovation pundits, college professors and basic researchers all agree upon! Lesson Learned: You can’t keep self-motivated, sharp and brave student entrepreneurs down.


*If you still are curious about all this & have access to Science magazine – David Malakoff wrote a nice article, “The Many Ways of Making Academic Research Pay Off,” in Science (15 February 2013) Vol. 339 no. 6121 pp. 750-753

 **Because our “n” is very small, this blog post is categorized as “opinion.”

(The “lessons learned” format should be attributed to Steve Blank!)