Want to Start a Business? Then Go Back to School

During the first 2 years of work on my PhD, I have met quite a few postgraduate students who assert they will leave research once their thesis is over and done with. But when I ask them what they would like to do instead, they appear more hesitant. When it comes to your professional path, a change is always intimidating, and too often people decide to stay in academia for the wrong reason--finding a postdoc is much easier than re-evaluating a career plan you have been following for way too long.

The transition from basic research to the commercialisation of scientific ideas and discoveries is not an obvious one for those who have spent years in a university lab investigating the function of a single gene or a particular step in a biochemical pathway. However, entrepreneurship is not necessarily the reserve of business degree holders, and only by translating knowledge into something that will benefit the general public can science move forward. In this spirit, dramatic changes are taking place in the UK to revamp both academic research and technology transfer.

At the University of Cambridge such efforts have led to the creation of a Masters in Bioscience Enterprise. The programme is supported by the Cambridge?MIT Institute ( CMI), a multi-million pound alliance between the university and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ( MIT) in Cambridge, USA. The 1-year course--open to between 15 and 20 women and men from around the world--aims to provide mature students with the tools they need to become successful entrepreneurs in the biological sciences, by offering intensive coverage of biotechnology, management, ethics, science policy, and communication.

With the arrival of the very first students next month, expectations for the course are high. Dr. Claire Cockcroft, assistant director of the programme, was surprised at the overall quality of the applications. The selected students are "professionally and culturally diverse," although they all hold first degrees in the life sciences or chemistry. Some have already had an exposure to entrepreneurship, others are just about to fly the nest of academic research, but they all demonstrate an enthusiasm for entrepreneurship, as well as a potential to become the leaders of future biomedical industries. Cockcroft hopes that the students will benefit from each other?s backgrounds as much as from the lectures.

The course draws its strength from a combination of science and management teaching modules. During one-third of the year, the students will learn about the cutting-edge developments in the life sciences with the greatest entrepreneurial potential--from bioinformatics to neuroscience, epidemiology, drug discovery, and stem cell research. All the modules are lecture-based and taught by academics at the forefront of each technology. In addition, for the ?Bioinformatics, Proteomics, and Functional Genomics? module, the students will be visiting the European Bioinformatics Institute ( EBI) for a more hands-on approach to the subject.

As for the business management modules, Cockcroft describes them as ?the essential elements of an MBA distilled? to suit life scientists. Whether you are an innate entrepreneur or a scientist bursting with ideas, the aim of these modules is to help students identify what distinguishes successful companies from failed ventures. From recognising a valuable innovation to drafting an effective marketing strategy, starting a business in biotechnology is no trivial task. Too many good ideas compete for limited venture capital, and it is essential to know the rules of the game. Direct interaction with businesses in the life sciences will take place during the summer, when the students will arrange a placement with the company of their choice for their thesis work.

Science and business teaching will be complemented by lectures on ethics, law, and policy. The ethical issues arising from genetically modified crops, stem cells, or mammalian cloning have received a great deal of scrutiny by the media, and the resulting debate is far from settled. Life scientists, whether in academia or industry, now face the arguably new responsibility of ensuring that their research is not detrimental to society. Teaching ethics is an ambitious objective, and the programme?s aim is merely to present the dilemmas originating from new biotechnologies as food for thought.

The course is unique not only for the breadth of the subjects, but also for its alliance with MIT. The students from Cambridge, UK, will spend at least 1 week in Cambridge, USA, and their counterparts from an affiliated programme at MIT will visit the UK later in the year. This will allow them to sample the differences in know-how between the two renowned universities and between biotechnology enterprises on either side of the Atlantic. The two programmes are independent, even though they pursue similar goals. Also in its first year, the Biomedical Enterprise Program at MIT is a 2-year course, at the end of which the participants are awarded both a Master's degree in Health Science and a Master's of Management of Technology.

The programme in Bioscience Enterprise will be able to provide a few bursaries for UK students in its first year and possibly for both UK and overseas students in the years to come. The fees and application procedure for the course are similar to those for any other MPhil at the University of Cambridge, and the amount of the bursaries will vary.

The creation of postgraduate courses in entrepreneurship is a recent hot trend in universities across the world. The Karolinska Institute in Sweden, the University of Sydney in Australia, and Stanford University in California are developing their own answers to the demand for leaders in bioscience industries. Also, the CMI partnership based in Cambridge has created a Master's programme in Technology Policy, and another in Environmental Engineering and Sustainable Development. These two programmes also combine lectures and interactions with enterprises, and highlight the value of an interdisciplinary formation in science and management.

The need for scientists with an eye for business as well as research knowledge is increasing rapidly, and for those who love science but have second thoughts about spending a lifetime in the lab, this might be the answer.

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