Building Partnerships Between Academia and Biosciences Companies

An innovative MBA program combines the elements of traditional business fundamentals with scientific concepts.
May 01, 2010
Volume 23, Issue 5

Vincent Turula, PhD
The importance of the biosciences industry is unmistakable. Companies in this sector now have revenues of approximately $1.2 trillion per year and growth rates of 6–8% per year. This growth has fostered a need for managers that possess both scientific knowledge and business acumen. Traditional scientific and business programs provide academic backgrounds for the separate disciplines, but lack the sufficient crossover for biosciences managers who need both. To fill this gap, programs augment the graduate curriculum with one or two classes to prepare the manager for an awareness of science, or conversely, the scientist with some rudiments of business. However, this approach falls short in providing the newly minted manager or scientist with the unique background that the biosciences area requires. Biosciences managers must understand the connections between and among all areas associated with the field. Companies representing red (healthcare), white (industrial products), and green (nutrition and agriculture) biotechnology have voiced a desire for such bio-entrepreneurial managers. The North Carolina State University (NCSU) BioSciences Management program was created to fulfill these needs.

Further complicating management of the biosciences organization is the rapidly changing paradigm of product and service development; this includes the business model used to generate such deliverables. The biosciences industry is complex, ambiguous, fast-evolving, highly entrepreneurial, science-driven, expensive, and ethically charged. Companies require specially trained managers, who are aware of these dynamics to compete and grow their organizations effectively. This has become particularly important of late because the availability of credit and venture capital to biosciences companies has become scarce, making growth all the more challenging. The new leaders and innovators of these industries must be cognizant of, and sometimes fluent in biotechnology; more importantly, they must understand how these technologies affect their particular businesses and operations. They will require the skill sets and behaviors to participate in and become architects of evolving business models such as open collaboration innovation.1

The NCSU BioSciences Management Initiative has developed a curriculum that contains elements of traditional business concepts intertwined with scientific concepts. The curriculum contains an initial core of business fundamentals onto which biotechnology and pharmaceutical courses are layered. These involve dynamic areas such as finance, entrepreneurship, alliance forming, intellectual property, innovation management, and marketing, and serve to provide additional background. A principal aspect of the BioSciences MBA is the practicum, a short-term project where students work directly with bio-agricultural, bio-industrial, medical devices, diagnostics, or pharmaceutical firms. The BioSciences MBA culminates in the practicum, which encompasses many aspects of the degree program. The outcome is that students learn the tools needed to pursue management in biosciences and pharmaceutical environments in either science-based functions, such as research and development (R&D), or business functions. In turn, the sponsor receives approaches and solutions to improve performance and positions themselves for enhanced competitive advantage.

The practicum also is the beginning of interaction with companies. The students begin to understand the needs and wants of the companies and industry and the companies begin a partnership with the MBA program. This produces a continuous feedback loop of information to program organizers and is used to update and keep the program focused. This essentially is an action-learning module that is specific for companies so that information generated is instantly useful to the company.

Table 1. The NCSU BioSciences Management Initiative network of biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies in the greater Research Triangle Park area. The table shows which companies have employees as students in the BioSciences MBA program, have been sponsors of practica, and if the organization is a member of the industry advisory board (IAB) of the program.
Students select the practicum subjects based on their interest and degree focus area. Because many of the students already have backgrounds in biotechnology, they are encouraged to select projects outside of their area of expertise. During the practicum, the students use the management tools they learned during the first year of the MBA program and apply it to the problem or project of the sponsor institution. Those participating in the practicum have many options ranging from evaluation of supply chain efficiencies, performing data mining, examining company's patent positions, or surveying the competitive landscape to forge strategic partnerships. An extensive array of potential sponsor organizations (approximately 550 companies and organizations) exists in proximity to NCSU within the greater Research Triangle Park area, making these projects readily accessible.2 Table 1 lists companies that have projects in the NCSU BioSciences Management program. Organizations that have had or have current NCSU MBA practica are indicated with "yes" in the practica column, and those involved in the industry advisory board (column IAB) are also indicated with a "yes".

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