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First graduates boon to Wisconsin biotechnology

May 11, 2004

Two years ago, 10 students working as scientists, business managers and lawyers came together with a single goal: to become leaders in this state’s burgeoning biotechnology industry. On Saturday, May 15, they will graduate as the first alumni of the master of science in biotechnology program at UW–Madison.

Many biotechnology leaders in the Madison area consider the skills and contacts the students picked up during their four semesters crucial and a rarity in larger biotechnology settings. And, for some of the students, those skills are paying off in job promotions and offers at local companies.

The program’s coordinators, biotechnology leaders and even the students themselves say that this early success speaks to the value of the degree program not just to the students, but also to state employers.

The two-year program, initiated in 2002, was designed to meet the needs of the growing number of Wisconsin companies developing, manufacturing and selling products related to biotechnology. Its plan was to train the industry’s work force not just in science, but also ethics, law and business so that they would be well-versed in all aspects of biotechnology, ultimately positioning them as candidates for middle or upper management jobs within the industry.

Taught by university faculty and area business leaders, the core courses cover topics such as molecular technology, pre-clinical drug development, drug manufacturing and the impact of biotechnology on society. Academics are supplemented with hands-on learning through internships and independent research projects, many of which were completed by this year’s graduates in Uganda.

“There are so many sides to launching a product,” says Bill Checovich, director of Madison operations at Invitrogen, a biotechnology company that manufactures the kits pharmaceutical companies use to test new drugs. “If you don’t take all sides into account, you’re bound to make a mistake.”

For this reason, Invitrogen encouraged two of its employees, both junior scientists, to enroll in the program. Recognizing the value added by having scientists trained in technology, business and law, the company covered 90 percent of the employees’ program tuition.

“Some scientists want to come here and work in the lab, but others are interested in expanding beyond that and moving in different directions,” says Checovich. “Smaller companies always value people who can cross over into multiple areas, whether in business or science.”

He adds that opportunities to pick up the skills required to work in different divisions of a company are plentiful at startups, where the few employees must manage both the science and the business plan, but scarce in larger environments, where employees are hired to perform specialized jobs.

“When this company started out, the scientists had to wear many different hats,” says Checovich, who was the company’s sixth employee (when it was PanVera) and took on many roles. “They worked in the lab in the morning, called customers in the afternoon and, at the end of the day, threw out the garbage. But as the company grew, there was no chance anymore for someone to pick up all those different skills.”

This is where UW–Madison’s biotechnology program steps in.

For Jennifer Fronczak, an Invitrogen scientist, the program exposed her to all aspects of the industry – from product development to sales – and the questions to ask along the way.

“Biotechnology changes so rapidly that you’re constantly reacting,” she says. “You really need to be able to recognize when you might have an issue with a future product, whether the issue is about ethical implications or intellectual property. You also need to understand how the new technology fits with the customers’ or company’s interests.”

For her ability to realize and respond to the dynamics of the industry, particularly within a company, Fronczak was recently promoted to a group leader position overseeing entry-level scientists. She says she credits 75 percent of her advance to what she learned during the program.

“It became an obvious decision,” says Checovich, who supervises Fronczak. “She had a maturing of skills that I value.”

But it’s not just the scientists who benefit from the program. Lawyers and business managers do, too.

Craig Christianson, who came to the program as a business consultant with a law degree, thought most biotechnology companies were unprofitable, volatile and only discovery-driven. But now he says, “I found out that there’s an entire ecosystem with some companies running at a loss looking for a breakthrough and others making money manufacturing products, licensing intellectual property or consulting.”

As someone who has helped companies develop business plans to increase sales or merge with other companies, he now sees biotechnology as an industry where his skills can be applied.

“I hope to join a leadership team in the biotech industry in business development,” he says. It’s through company partnerships and alliances within Wisconsin’s biotechnology industry that the industry in the state could really grow.

Mentioning his surprise at the level of awareness potential employers and recruiters have about the program and its graduates, Christianson says he has already been approached several times and asked about his career interests and potential availability for job candidacy.

“To have a cadre of such informed advocates of biotechnology moving into positions of greater responsibility and leadership is very positive for the state,” says Richard Moss, UW–Madison chair of the physiology department and director of the biotechnology program. “It may provide Wisconsin with a very clear competitive advantage in years to come.”

How this may play out, as it already has with some of the program’s first graduates, is by providing a local work force that can help Wisconsin biotechnology companies flourish.

“One big gap I see in the biotechnology industry in this state is the lack of middle managers who know how to move companies along,” Checovich says. “It’s very difficult to attract them to this area. If we want to have people locally, we must home grow them.”

With the help of the UW–Madison degree program, the first generation of local leaders will graduate this weekend, and all of them have plans to stay in the area. Next year, they will be joined by 20 more graduates ready to lend their expertise and leadership to expand Wisconsin’s biotechnology industry.

Tags: biosciences