Rising Support for European Biotechnology

Networking is an important career tool, especially in troubled economic times. But in addition to helping you out with relevant information and contacts, your network can also have a social role. Yes, (net)working on your career can be fun!

A new networking organisation is bringing together young Europeans involved in biotechnology. The Young European Biotech Network (YEBN) aims to create an identity for the next generation of biotechnologists, giving us a greater opportunity to interact with industry leaders and policymakers--plus we have the chance to get to know other young scientists with similar interests from across the continent.

The need for such a network was recognised by delegates from French, German, Swiss, and Italian student biotech associations who took part in Biotechnica 2001 in Hannover, Germany, in October 2001. We felt that young professionals and researchers were particularly under-represented at this kind of big business fair. And moreover, it was always up to us to take the initiative and approach industry.

Why shouldn't it be the other way around, we thought, with industry gauging the feelings and opinions of its future employees and leaders? Likewise, due to a lack of coordination, knowledge exchange, and a common voice, the opinion of biotechnology students is usually missing from public debates on biotech issues.

So how can YEBN change this situation? The goal is to create a dynamic, Europe-wide community of young biotech scientists. Each founding national association has its own strengths and activities. But by sharing our ideas, some common, pan-European projects will evolve, raising the profile of biotechnology and young biotechnologists.

For example, the biotechnological student initiative ( btS e.V.) is active in many German cities and aims to present opportunities in the life sciences to students. Meanwhile, Zurich-based STARTbiotech specialises in fostering entrepreneurship in biotechnology. It won the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year Supporter Award in 2002. The Association of Italian Biotechnologists and the National Council of Students in Biotechnology want to improve biotechnology education and the recognition of biotechnology as a profession in Italy. And the Ecole Supérieure de Biotechnologie de Strasbourg ( ESBS) is a unique biotech university with trinational (French, German, and Swiss) courses in which students get a profound intercultural experience in the process of their training.

It is obvious that a pan-European framework could take the best from these activities and pave the way for international projects. In a major step toward achieving this, YEBN's inaugural meeting was held in Bertinoro, Italy, last December. The presidents of the European Federation of Biotechnology (EFB), Boerge Diderichsen, and of EuropaBio, Eric Tambuyzer, as well as representatives of biotech enterprises and academia, together with Etienne Magnien of the European Commission and many others, contributed to fruitful discussions on biotechnology in Europe. The YEBN network runs mostly on e-mails, so it was fantastic to meet face to face. Mingling with team members from the four founding-member countries during the breaks was a great opportunity for cultural exchange.

The inaugural Bertinoro meeting, with team members from Italy, Germany, Switzerland, and France.

Photo Credit CNSB

The opportunity for young people to meet and engage with previously distant leaders in the biotechnology field was enlightening and led to additional opportunities. For example, following his participation in the YEBN inaugural conference, the ESBS students invited EFB's Professor Diderichsen, who is vice president of Novo Nordisk, to be the patron of their graduating class and guest speaker for their graduation ceremony.

During the meeting, it was decided that YEBN will negotiate a formal co-operation with EFB. This will expand YEBN's contacts and provide invaluable help in order to get some concrete projects started. The details will be worked out soon. We have been pleasantly surprised to discover how keen the established organisations in our field have been to answer our questions and support our efforts. Most such organisations are happy to welcome new young members. However, it is important to note that YEBN is an independent, nonprofit network of those who run it: engaged young scientists.

Several guest speakers at the Bertinoro meeting mentioned that there is a lack of and need for mechanisms that introduce the young generation to biotechnology--its hot topics and controversies as well as its business aspects. One possible activity for YEBN members could be to contribute to informing young Europeans by talking about their experiences and discussing their thoughts about this field, critically and rationally.

YEBN activities are based on ideas for projects raised by YEBN members themselves. One of the first things we want to do is to become a valuable information source, and a means for exchanging ideas, by extending the Web site into a portal. Users will be able to post articles and add their favourite biotech links. With the addition of surveys and a forum, the site will become an interactive platform. We would also like to develop projects to improve biotechnology education and communication.

And we want to raise the profile of young biotechnologists by having them participate in conferences and fairs. Already 14 YEBN delegates have taken part, at the invitation of the European Commission, in a conference on sustainable agriculture held in Brussels at the end of January, at which 600 delegates from all over the world discussed the potential contribution of bioscientists to sustainable and safe food production.

YEBN members Sophie Gonin (France), David Ederle (Italy), and Francesco Lescai (Italy) at the Brussels meeting on sustainable agriculture.

Photo Credit CNSB

Now YEBN has been invited to attend the European Conference on Biotechnology in Basel, Switzerland, in late August. A project group is being set up to organise our attendance, and we would like to play an active role in the meeting, most likely through involvement with a workshop on biotechnology education.

With the integration of the eastern European states into the European Union, there are thrilling opportunities to learn about their emerging biotech scenes. Right now, YEBN is establishing contact with the Academic Students' Society of Biotechnology (ASSB) in Poland, an umbrella association for the sharing of information about biotech students' scientific activities.

Membership in YEBN is open to individuals and groups of interested young biotechnologists from any European country. Do you share our vision of biotechnology as a key factor in the sustainable development of our future? Do you want to promote a responsible and dynamic community of young scientists? By becoming a member, you have the opportunity to initiate projects by presenting ideas to the YEBN Executive Board. The network is thus acquiring a growing think tank of active members from a variety of countries, sectors, and backgrounds.

After all, that is the idea of a network: to participate in activities or, even better, initiate them and in turn to benefit from the common resources and possibilities. So do not stay within the tight boundaries of your work or studies, but interact!

You can get more information by visiting the Web site www.yebn.org or by contacting info@yebn.org.

Lars Ullerich is the Web master of the YEBN Web site. He joined the btS while enrolled in biology undergraduate studies in Freiburg, Germany. He subsequently switched to the master's programme at the Ecole Superiéure de Biotechnologie (ESBS) in Strasbourg, where he established the French YEBN team. He is currently in Singapore, where he is working on his diploma thesis research project.

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