From the Bench to the Boardroom


New biotechnology companies established in western Canada have had a tendency to migrate to large industry centres (such as Toronto, Boston, San Diego, or Seattle) in order to access suitable technology-management expertise and funding. With the introduction of programs such as the WestLink Innovation Network Ltd. Technology Commercialization Internship Program ( TCIP), the local technical expertise is developing and evolving to the extent that it will allow existing companies to remain in the western provinces and new ones to start up there.

Commercialization of technology developed in universities not only realizes the years of work conducted by academic researchers but also brings funding back into the university coffers and, by requiring skilled technical staff, generates employment for university graduates. Furthermore, growth of the biotechnology sector will enhance economic diversification and will generate a core of technical expertise, catalyzing the establishment of research parks and more biotechnology companies.

Technology commercialization requires managers with a strong scientific background who can understand and appreciate the value of inventions, together with the business acumen to enable the technology to reach its full commercial potential. Business is relatively easy and rapid to learn, whereas scientific nuances are more complex to comprehend. Technology managers also need to be translators, to communicate both with the scientists and the business people at their level, requiring both scientific and business experience.

The WestLink TCIP provides to those with a science background a real-world, working knowledge of the business side of technology commercialization. The TCIP also afforded me the opportunity for a much-needed career change.

My background is firmly grounded in science. I completed a degree in cellular and molecular biology at Anglia Polytechnic University (Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology) in the United Kingdom. Then, on two scholarships, I traveled to Brisbane, Australia, for an MSc in biotechnology from the University of Queensland. Subsequently, I returned to England and worked for 2 years for the UK Human Genome Mapping Project Resource Centre. After this, I received a Rotary Foundation Scholarship to study in a country where I had not previously studied.

After I was accepted to universities in New Zealand and in Canada, Rotary decided that I should study in Canada. So on to Canada I went, and graduated with my PhD in medical genetics from the University of Calgary. To further my scientific training, I completed two postdoctoral fellowships at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, one in analytical chemistry and the other in medical microbiology and immunology.

Although it would appear that I was steering a course to an academic harbour, the truth was that I having serious doubts. Towards the end of my last research post, I had become disillusioned with academia--postdoc positions offered no job security or benefits. When I sought alternatives, it seemed as if there was little opportunity for a scientific career outside the academic world. In the relatively small city of Edmonton, the limited selection of biotechnology companies left little choice for industrial positions. I investigated alternative science careers, such as scientific writing and business development, but most of these appeared to warrant a move to a larger city. For me, I would rather have returned to the United Kingdom, with its more advanced biotechnology and supporting industries, than take another academic research position.

I feel extremely lucky that the director of the University of Alberta Industry Liaison Office (ILO) brought to my attention the WestLink call for applications, a perfectly timed quirk of fate. Through the TCIP, interns gain exposure to technology commercialization from at least three different perspectives: The 2-year internship consists of three placements, each of 8 months' duration, in a technology-transfer office, a venture-capital organization, and a high-technology company. At the same time, the 19 interns network among themselves and have access to one another's networking web.

The program began with an intensive, week-long "boot camp," where we listened to many prestigious presenters, who provided a general business background that allowed us to "hit the ground running" in our first placement. This was our first opportunity to interact with the other interns; we have much in common, similar outlooks on life, and a willingness to take a risk. I think even WestLink was surprised at how well the interns networked. We've had several opportunities to interact since. Between each 8-month period, interplacement sessions gave us time to discuss our experiences and lessons learned. We were also brought together for a basic licensing course that we took as part of the program and at the annual general meeting of the board of directors. In addition, WestLink initiated a discussion group Web site where the interns can post work-related questions and problems. Thus, although the interns are spread out over four provinces, we have had many opportunities to interact and network.

My first placement in technology transfer was at the Administrative Centre for the Protein Engineering National Centres of Excellence ( PENCE), a Canada-wide network focused on proteomic research. Unfortunately, PENCE was phasing out its central technology-transfer group, so after 4 months, I moved to the Health Sciences Technology Transfer team at the University of Alberta ILO for intensive training, learning everything from reports of invention to material transfer agreements, licensing technologies, how to search for strategic partners, and so forth.

My second placement for venture capital was split between Foundation Equity Corp. in St. Albert and Parlee McLaws LLP in Edmonton. Foundation Equity is a venture-capital firm, with approximately five ongoing investments, and there I gained experience and expertise in business evaluation, due diligence, and management of investee companies. During my time with the Parlee McLaws's practice group in intellectual property and innovation (TechCounsel team), I acquired invaluable working knowledge of patenting by assisting in the preparation, filing, and prosecution of patents, as well as the legal documentation and reporting required by companies and for the Alberta Securities Commission.

A Big Thank You!

The placement hosts have each demonstrated a strong commitment to the WestLink program and to developing and maintaining a western biotechnology community. Mentors have donated their time to train the interns, with a view to building and enhancing technical expertise and, ultimately, feeding back to the young biotechnology community.

I would like to extend my gratitude and appreciation to each of the placement hosts on behalf of all the WestLink interns, thanking them for believing in this prototype internship program and for making it happen. Moreover, a big "thank you" is extended to the funding agencies and of course to WestLink!

My final placement is at a high-tech company called Ceapro Inc., a biotechnology firm that is developing and commercializing products for the human and animal health industries, using proprietary technology and natural, renewable resources. One of products is a diabetes-screening test. As the diabetes project manager, I am developing a marketing strategy and marketing materials. Some of my duties include the design, testing, and manufacturing of the product; working with the contractors and clinical-trials teams; and exploring different distribution systems.

One of the main advantages of the WestLink TCIP is real-world exposure, not simply the theoretical knowledge that an MBA will offer. Although an MBA and TCIP complement each other, nothing can beat hands-on experience and a working knowledge. On completing the TCIP, interns will have the skills and experience that will make them invaluable--not only to researchers wishing to spin off companies but also to biotechnology- patenting and technology-transfer offices, to name but a few options. We will have experience in the many perspectives that are each necessary steps in the formation of a company, from the initial reporting of an invention to a university ILO to the legal contracts of a new company, investor forums, financial investment agreements, and working within a company. Interns will, ideally, understand how all the individual pieces connect and form the big picture.

To a certain extent, the success of the first round of the WestLink TCIP will be assessed on the types of jobs secured by the interns after the program. Although a number of the interns were originally interested in technology-transfer positions, it appears that exposure to the venture-capital industry and company culture has elicited much greater interest for many.

The career opportunities open to me now are numerous and varied. My scientific background complements the business acumen I have attained, which means that I can not only talk the talk but also walk the walk.

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