Programs Prepare Scientists For Business World

Although newly degreed life scientists may be ready for employment in an academic setting, they often come to the business world unprepared for the fast-paced, team-based, results-oriented environment of today's life science industry, a variety of observers from industry and academia assert. Some university and business leaders are helping to rectify such problems by teaming up to create educational programs focused on the business side of science. OFFERING AN ALTERNATIVE: Henry Riggs, preside

Mar 30, 1998
Peter Gwynne
Although newly degreed life scientists may be ready for employment in an academic setting, they often come to the business world unprepared for the fast-paced, team-based, results-oriented environment of today's life science industry, a variety of observers from industry and academia assert. Some university and business leaders are helping to rectify such problems by teaming up to create educational programs focused on the business side of science.

OFFERING AN ALTERNATIVE: Henry Riggs, president of the Keck Graduate Institute, will "let problems drive the nature of the education."
"There's obviously a tremendous amount of graduate education in the life sciences," says Henry Riggs, a former president of California's Harvey Mudd College. "But our sense is that it's not geared to the needs of industry or the needs of students who want to go into industry rather than go to medical school or be cloned into academic faculty."

Riggs, now president of the Keck Graduate Institute (KGI), has embarked on an ambitious course to offer new opportunities. Chartered a year ago with the objective of preparing highly qualified students for professional careers in life science-based organizations, KGI will open its doors to students next year in Claremont, Calif., as the seventh member of the Claremont Consortium of Colleges. Other academic institutions have started to address this issue as well. Northwestern University, Cornell University, and the University of California, San Diego, among others, run small programs designed to train life scientists for industrial careers.

Is an institution like KGI really necessary? According to Riggs, surveys that he and his cofounders have carried out over the past four years suggest strongly that it is. The surveys have revealed two forms of need:

  • Although biology is one of today's fastest growing undergraduate majors, industry wants more life scientists with master's and doctoral degrees than conven- tional academic institutions are providing.

  • A significant number of science and engineering graduates who are interested in the life sciences feel their postgraduate courses don't apply to industrial careers.

    KGI will appeal to "students fascinated by life science" who seek alternatives to medical school or the tenure track by offering courses that will provide them with entrée to work in the biotechnology, pharmaceutical, and medical device industries, among others, Riggs says.

    Industrialists agree on the need for better business-oriented training. "We have a growing industry, a growing technology, and an unfilled educational gap," explains Louis Rosso, chairman and CEO of Fullerton, Calif.-based Beckman Instruments Inc. and a member of KGI's advisory council. "There's promise that an explosion of knowledge in the life sciences will drive commercial activity. That provides a pretty obvious opportunity for people trained to handle the combination of science and commerce."

    The life science industry has already grown spectacularly. "Fifteen to 20 years ago there was no such thing as a biotechnology company," continues Rosso. "Now there are 1,000 of them. And there's any number of focused efforts in the bigger pharmaceutical companies. They all need managers."

    They aren't getting them from research institutions. "A lot of students in research universities don't go into the private sector," says Julie Meier Wright, president and CEO of the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp. "Several companies here are training their four-year graduates at community colleges. There, they attend courses that deal with the fundamentals of companies' needs."

    San Diego has a particular need for life scientists comfortable with industrial careers. The area has become a magnet for start-up bioscience companies. "We have about 40 drugs in clinical trials or recently approved," notes Wright. "As drugs are approved, the industry needs more qualified people."

    Business needs can take different forms. "You need a Ph.D. if you're going to be a company's vice president of research," explains Alicia Löffler, director of Northwestern University Center for Biotechnology (NUCB). "If you're going to be president of the company, you don't need a Ph.D., but you must understand business."

    GREATER UNDERSTANDING NEEDED: More information needs to be shared between industry and academia, says Rick Morimoto, head of BIO-Opportunities, a career program for Northwestern Ph.D. life scientists.

    BACK TO SCHOOL: Donna Bauer, a consultant with APM/CSC Health Care of New York, went for an MBA--after she had a Ph.D. in molecular and cell biology.
    One obstacle is a common lack of understanding in academia about the day-to-day biotechnology industry. Rick Morimoto, who runs BIO-Opportunities, a Northwestern-based, career-oriented program for Ph.D. life scientists, explains one reason for this: "Those who go off into industry don't come back into academics. So we don't get the easy cross-fertilization that we get in other parts of the academy, such as business schools."

    Biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies provide most of the demand for industry-sensitive life scientists. Increasingly, though, consulting firms are seeking individuals who can evaluate the research carried out by bioscience clients. "Coopers & Lybrand [in San Jose, Calif.] recently hired Jean-Frederic Viret, a graduate with a biology and business background, to audit technology firms," says John Elliott, associate dean of Cornell's Johnson Graduate School of Management. Elliott oversees a program that permits individuals with advanced science degrees to earn their MBAs in 12 months rather than the usual two years. Viret's scientific background plays a significant role in his work. "You can get a feel for whether a company is going to make it or not beyond the financials," Viret explains.

    As the Keck Graduate Institute prepares to open, several universities already offer courses to prepare graduates in the life sciences for careers in industry. A few examples:

    Cornell University: Cornell's Johnson Graduate School of Management has an accelerated, 12-month MBA degree course for individuals with advanced degrees.
    For admissions information, write to:
    Johnson Graduate School
    Malott Hall
    Cornell University
    Ithaca, N.Y. 14853-4201
    Web site:

    Northwestern University: The Northwestern University Center for Biotechnology offers an M.S.-degree track that requires students to take a four-quarter program, including studies in both the science and the business of biotechnology.
    For admissions information, write to:
    Center for Biotechnology
    Northwestern University
    1801 Maple Ave.
    Evanston, Ill. 60201-3135
    Web site:

    University of California, San Diego: UC-San Diego sponsors two certificate programs, one in biotechnology manufacturing and the other in clinical-trials management. Both involve eight courses, with possible industry internships. For admissions information, write to:
    University of California, San Diego
    UCSD Extension, Dept. 0176-H
    9500 Gilman Dr.
    La Jolla, Calif. 92093-0176
    Web site:

    University of Pennsylvania: Penn offers an M.S. degree in biotechnology sponsored jointly by the biology department and the school of engineering. Students concentrate on one of three tracks: basic biotechnology, engineering biotechnology, and computational biology and bioinformatics.
    For admissions information, write to:
    School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
    Professional Education Programs
    University of Pennsylvania
    Room 119 Towne Building
    Philadelphia, Pa. 19104-6391
    Web site:

    Individuals who want careers in industry recognize the lack of appropriate preparation in traditional degree courses. "When you're trained as a scientist, you don't take any management or business classes," says Donna Bauer, a consultant with APM/CSC Health Care of New York. "I realized that I didn't have the management tools to go into industry." So Bauer took Cornell's accelerated MBA course to add to her Johns Hopkins University Ph.D. in molecular and cell biology. The Cornell program is in its third year. So far, according to Elliott, 21 of 27 of this year's students have received solid job offers.

    NUCB placed all its students in jobs last year, with 96 percent going into industry. "We provide our students with both science and business skills," says NUCB director Löffler. "We teach them all the commercial aspects of making products--marketing, financing, intellectual property, and clinical trials. And we give them an overview of what it takes to get things done in industry."

    The center, which awards M.S. degrees, pioneered the concept of training life scientists for industry. Until 1995 it was the nation's only program of its kind. Now others have emerged. The University of Pennsylvania runs an M.S. degree course in biotechnology that permits students to concentrate on basic biotechnology, engineering biotechnology, or computational biotechnology and bioinformatics. And the University of California, San Diego offers a special program in biomanufacturing and clinical trials management.

    KGI president Riggs freely concedes his debt to NUCB. "It's a pretty interesting model of an industry-oriented life science course," he explains. "They've put together an interesting program, well accepted by Abbott Laboratories [a local company in Abbott Park, Ill]. I think they've attracted a good set of students."

    While NUCB puts a strong emphasis on pharmaceuticals, adds Riggs, "we're more likely to be oriented to the medical devices and biotechnology areas. That's because of where we're located. Los Angeles has a heavy concentration of medical device companies."

    The main factor that separates KGI from similar programs is its size. Plans call for a five-year buildup, starting in fall 1999, to a steady enrollment of 125 students. About 75 percent of those will study for M.S. degrees, while the remainder will seek Ph.D.'s. The Ph.D. program, explains Riggs, "will be oriented more to the applied side, like Ph.D.'s in engineering."

    Last year KGI gained a grant of $50 million from the Los Angeles-based W.M. Keck Foundation, which set it up financially. And in January, KGI announced the names of its advisory council. The group includes such bioscience luminaries as National Academy of Sciences president Bruce Alberts, Carnegie Institution of Washington president Maxine Singer, and three chief executives of companies involved in life science: Beckman Instruments' Rosso; Larry Gold, founder and CEO of NeXstar Pharmaceuticals Inc. of Boulder, Colo.; and Kwang-I Yu, president and CEO of bioinformatics firm Paracel Corp. of Pasadena, Calif.. "The best testimony to [the value of KGI's mission] is the quality of the advisory board," says Riggs. "When they salute the idea and are willing to spend time on it, it's obviously worthwhile."

    Now comes the key challenge of "designing a school from scratch," to use Riggs's words. "KGI is nontraditional," he explains. "We are not going to be bound by things like the academic calendar. I think we'll move in the direction of course modules rather than traditional semesters. And we'll let problems drive the nature of the education rather than think about what we have to stuff into a kid's head."

    How strong a role will industry play in curricula? "We want to be very closely linked with industry, but to be certain that the curriculum is designed by us, not by industry's trendy needs at a particular moment," declares Riggs.

    Scheduled for coming months is the selection of a chief academic officer and then the first faculty members. "We're not looking for people who have spent full time in industry," says Riggs. "But the right people will have had plenty of contact with industry."

    The final act before opening will involve the choice of students. Individuals who have participated in similar programs as students or faculty members suggest that the criteria go beyond scientific potential. "You really have to have people skills," stresses Bauer. Previous experience in the workplace also helps, observers say. "The most successful people have already worked outside academe," says Elliott. "They have the kind of seasoning that comes from being in an organization slightly different from a research lab in a university. And they have good communications skills."

    For a student to be accepted into Cornell's MBA program, Elliott seeks one other characteristic: "targeted interest." Before entering an industry-oriented program, he says, it's useful to have a sense of what industry you want to enter and what role you want to take in it. "It's important that people have well-defined career goals."

    Peter Gwynne, a freelance science writer based in Marstons Mills, Mass., can be reached online at