Learning to talk the language is no cakewalk: executives confront a "polymerase chain reaction and gel electrophoresis" experiment. Photo: Les Todd
Learning to talk the language is no cakewalk: executives confront a "polymerase chain reaction and gel electrophoresis" experiment. Photo: Les Todd

Biotechnology Boot Camp

Whether for start-ups or a leg up, an intensive, twelve-hours-a-day, five-day program teaches fundamental scientific and technical concepts to nonscientists.
Writer: 
June 1, 2004

Peter Jensen doesn't pretend to be a biotech expert. Although he works for a major pharmaceutical firm, Merck & Co., Inc., in Whitehouse Station, New Jersey, Jensen is an electrical engineer by training. So, when he became a procurement manager in charge of buying lab supplies and drug materials for Merck in early 2003, he knew he was in trouble. "I was a fish out of water," he says.

Then Jensen heard about Duke's Biotechnology for Business program, an intensive five-day seminar offered every spring. The seminar, which organizers bill as the Rolls Royce of science training programs for business professionals, is designed to teach fundamental scientific and technical concepts to nonscientists. Intrigued by the idea, Jensen signed up and flew to Durham last May.

A week later, tired but still enthusiastic, Jensen drove off to RDU airport a satisfied customer. After day upon twelve-hour day of rigorous classes and labs on such topics as genetics, molecular biology, pharmacology, chemistry, bioengineering, the human genome project, and bioinformatics, he felt as if he could finally understand and appreciate the science behind the life-sciences business. The true test came at the airport as he waited for his flight back to New Jersey. Opening a biotech trade magazine that he had never been able to decipher before, he found that it actually made sense to him now.

"I knew what they were talking about," he says, still somewhat astounded. "It was amazing the difference that five days make. When I read it before, it was so far removed from my knowledge that I couldn't make heads or tails of most of it."

Jensen is one of hundreds of midcareer business types who have taken the Biotechnology for Business course since Duke started offering it in 1994. Some forty professionals, or their companies, shell out up to $4,600 a pop each May for the little-known but highly acclaimed program, one of the few of its kind in the world. (This year's program is slated for May 2-6.) The eclectic list of participants typically includes both the expected--biotech and pharmaceutical managers--and some surprises: financial officers, venture capitalists, patent attorneys, private investors, headhunters, and government officials. They come from around the globe: Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, Scandinavia, and The Netherlands. "We've had participants from every continent except Antarctica," says Michael C. Pirrung, a chemistry professor at Duke who founded the biotech program ten years ago and still runs it.

"We thought we would get a lot of CEOs and CFOs from biotech companies, but rarely do we get those executives anymore," says Pirrung. "Most biotech executives have biotech backgrounds these days. So, now we get attorneys who don't have science backgrounds or investment bankers or industry analysts. We also get a lot of people from marketing departments."

"I think a lot of people are going there to learn enough about the science to connect the dots to commercial applications," says Curt Brewer, a Raleigh business lawyer with no science background, whose firm, Kennedy Covington Lobdell & Hickman LLP, has started working with biotechnology start-ups. Peggy Low, senior vice president of technology for the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce, decided to come after watching the Piedmont Triad's pool of life-science firms steadily grow to nearly fifty over the past few years. She thinks the course will give her group a leg up in efforts to entice biotech firms to the Triad and foster a more supportive environment for the companies already there.

"I really felt I needed a better understanding of what they did," says Low, who has a liberal-arts background and an M.B.A., but little science training. "If I can talk the language, I can better communicate with them and better recruit them."

As the program participants quickly discover, learning to talk the language is no cakewalk. On an average day, the Biotechnology for Business program consists of six or seven hour-long lectures at the Sanford Institute, plus lab experiments, technology demonstrations, and discussion groups. Program participants also receive custom-made course texts the size of small phone books, detailing all of the material covered in the lectures.

In the classroom, a team of seven instructors led by Pirrung set a grueling pace. On the first full day, the emphasis is heavily on cell biology and genetics. Haifan Lin, an associate professor of cell biology at Duke Medical Center, and Theresa O'Halloran, an assistant biology professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a former Duke instructor, take turns teaching about such weighty concepts as the four basic types of gene mutations and nucleotides and the transcription of DNA.

Laboring in the lab

 Laboring in the lab. Photo: Les Todd

 

"It was morning to night," Jensen says. "There was no chance to get bored. I was calling it 'Bio Boot Camp.' "

He wasn't the only one. Even experienced biotech professionals sometimes find the sheer volume of information and brisk pace a bit overwhelming. "It's very intense," says Neal Lambert, associate director of marketing, Asia-Pacific region, for Amgen. "Come in and be prepared to be a sponge."

In fact, participants who think they might get to enjoy a leisurely tour of the flowering Duke campus, a round or two of golf, or maybe just a short nap, usually find their hopes dashed. Instead, like other overworked graduate students, they troop from lecture to lab to discussion, with breaks mainly for coffee or food. The big difference is, these Duke graduate students get to eat sumptuous meals and stay at the luxurious Washington Duke Inn.

The fourth and last full day of the course, which focuses on stem cells, pharmacology, and trauma and infection, is particularly demanding. By this time, several are shaking their heads wearily, only half-joking when they complain that they have no more room in their brains for any more information. "Overall, it stretched me and almost broke me," quips Bill Schultz, the head of an executive search firm in Madison, Wisconsin. "All my friends say, 'You did what?' "

Schultz, a self-styled "business administrative guy" never attracted to the life sciences before, went to college before the first recombinant DNA molecule was discovered in 1973. But now, after many years in the computer software business, he's turning to biotech because he sees the same promise there that he once saw in the software field.

Many participants see the same promise. Intense and highly motivated to get their money's worth in a short time, they often give as good they get. In a horseshoe-shaped classroom at the Sanford Institute one morning last May, students peppered instructor Theresa O'Halloran with questions about DNA structure, interrupted her with comments, and corrected her when she occasionally tripped up on amino-acid names and terms. "Just checking," she said, smiling, when caught once.

The classroom exchanges also provide some lighter moments as students and instructors occasionally banter over the course material. In one session last May, program participants cracked up as Lin, the cell-biology professor, explained that the genetic difference between humans and chimpanzees is only about 1 percent, or just ten times the 0.1 percent difference between two people. "There are funny arguments one could make about this," he said, his eyes twinkling. "If there are twenty people on line and there is a 0.1 percent difference between them, the first and last ones we could call chimpanzees."

The reasons that participants come to the Duke biotechnology program are wide ranging. As might be expected, many, like Peter Jensen from Merck, come to advance their careers and strengthen their companies by boosting their knowledge of core biotech concepts. Whether they have science backgrounds or not, they seek to beef up their scientific and technical expertise so they can earn promotions, swing deals, purchase materials, market products, recruit customers, and generally make more money for their firms.

"It's going to be helpful in dealing with my clients--senior executives at pharmaceutical and biotech companies," says Joe Melvin, a senior engagement manager at Strategic Decisions Group, a management-consulting firm in Menlo Park, California. "This'll give me a credibility edge. I'll be able to ask more intelligent questions and understand their problems."

Career advancement and company enhancement are not the whole story, though. Some participants hunger to enter the burgeoning life-sciences industry, with its huge potential for growth and profits. Convinced that biotech will be to the economy in the twenty-first century what information technology was at the end of the twentieth, they aim to hitch a ride, even if they haven't cracked open a biology textbook or lit a Bunsen burner since high school.

Scientist at work

 Photo: Les Todd

 

Take Timothy Jones, a venture capitalist who runs his own investment firm in Atlanta and could have easily captured the 2003 class award for best schmoozer, if there was such an award. A bicoastal kind of guy who first made his mark in IT and computer software in Silicon Valley, Jones is now seeking to pour capital into the next life-sciences stars because that's where "the smart money" from such computer industry gurus as Bill Gates, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and Oracle CEO Larry Ellison seems to be heading.

"For me, the biggest reason was to learn the 'space,' " says Jones, referring to the biotech field in business argot. "You could ask all the geeky questions you wanted." Believe it or not, he adds, he focused so much on learning that "in some ways, I felt I didn't do enough networking."

Then there are what Pirrung calls "the wild-card people," biotech believers who, even if they have no clue how the scientific knowledge might help them professionally, can't resist signing up for the program. They take the course purely out of their love of the science and their conviction that biotech will be the biggest thing since electricity, or at least the microwave oven. In 2002, he recalls, it was a husband-and-wife team of law professors from the University of Texas at Austin; a year or two earlier, it was the rich, private investor from Hawaii.

The latest prime example is Jess Wetsel, the head of a sizable, family-run landscape-architecture and maintenance firm in Dallas. Wetsel, who holds a bachelor's in philosophy and an M.B.A., notes that he "stayed a long way away from the science buildings on campus" while attending college and graduate school. Yet, even though he has no intention of switching careers, Wetsel enlisted in last year's course because he passionately believes that biotech developments will transform society over the next few decades.

"Biology trumps all," he says. "This is an area I believe will fundamentally change our world, like the microprocessor and the steam engine. It's just important and exciting and gee-whiz stuff."

Despite the course's grinding nature, participants usually rave about it to friends and recommend it highly to colleagues. Such high praise insures a steady stream of new midcareer professionals to the Duke campus every year. In fact, companies and organizations frequently send a second, third, or even fourth generation of staff members to the program. Lambert, who attended with three of his colleagues last May, says Amgen officials have been flocking to the program ever since the company's chief financial officer participated one year and came back rhapsodizing about it.

Even in last spring's shaky economy, the course attracted a near sellout crowd of thirty-eight participants. This year's program was filled by March 1, a month and a half before the deadline for applications. "I'm confident now that our program has legs," Pirrung says. "I think there's still a tremendous amount of people who need it."

Like several others interviewed, Melvin says he'd "gladly come back for Biotech for Business II. It wasn't for the faint of heart. But it was exactly what I was looking for."