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Biotechnology Seminar Day Paints Bright Future for Young Scientists

MONTREAL--Last month, the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) Graduate Students Association organized a biotechnology seminar day and invited several speakers to discuss their careers in biotechnology. The speakers all agreed that biotechnology offers exciting opportunities for scientists interested in pursuing both traditional and alternative careers.

The first speaker was David Kaplan, a leading neuroscientist from the MNI and co-founder of Exogen Neurosciences, a biotech start-up based in Montreal. He began the seminar day by providing an overview of the similarities and differences between academia and industry.

Scientists in industry, for example, work toward specific company goals, while academic scientists have the freedom to pursue their own research interests. In addition, scientists in industry work together as members of a team while academic scientists tend to work more independently. Choosing the correct path is important, and Kaplan advised students to be persistent and aggressive in searching out the position you want.

The second speaker, David Burt, vice president of research at Intellivax Inc., a biotech start-up in the Montreal area, discussed the differences between working in a large pharmaceutical corporation and a small biotech start-up. Burt moved from a "big pharma" company to a smaller biotech firm where he could be directly involved in the decision-making process. Again, the theme seemed to be that there were plenty of opportunities in different areas, but that you had to chose which path was right for you.

The third speaker discussed less traditional careers in biotech. After his Ph.D., Serge Harpin joined the law firm Léger, Robic, Richard to train as a licensed patent and trademark agent. Canada's 3-year licensing process includes working with an already-licensed patent agent (who acts as a mentor), as well as taking courses in patents and trademarks. The final part of the process includes a number of examinations. Harpin pointed out that successful patent agents must enjoy reading, possess good writing skills, and be both analytical and systematic. Harpin emphasized that he found his work very exciting as he was exposed to a wide range of different research projects.

Dr. Francesco Bellini, founder and Chief Executive Officer of BioChem Pharma described the challenges he faced during his career. One of these options had to do with the brain drain: When faced with the option to leave Montreal and head south following the closure of his research group, Dr. Bellini decided to stay behind to start up a new company within Canada -- with obviously no regrets, having built one of the most successful Canadian biotech companies ever! Dr. Bellini inspired the crowd, but warned that success does not come easy. He advised everyone to 'always be prepared to adapt'.

Bob Béchard is the director of life sciences at Royal Bank Capital Partners, a venture capital firm specializing in biotechnology and life science investments. He described his work as a venture capitalist and outlined the process involved in the initial funding of biotech start-ups. He stressed the importance of having a good business plan that is easy to understand for nonscientists if you are starting up your own biotech company. In addition, he mentioned in passing that there are also some opportunities in the field of venture capital itself, and that some venture capital companies hire scientists as analysts.

The last speaker of the day, Colin Bier, chief executive officer of ABA Bioresearch, spoke about the role of scientists in management. His message was that the combination of science with management is not only exciting but also offers tremendous opportunities. Scientists aspiring to senior management positions must be forward-looking thinkers, have an entrepreneurial spirit, and be focused. In addition, they must also be daring, flexible, adaptable, and good listeners. Bier encouraged everyone interested to pursue opportunities in management, and emphasized that these positions did exist for someone who looked for them.

All in all, it was an exciting and inspiring day for aspiring young biotechnologists.