Biogen Idec Grant Sends San Diego’s Aspiring Biotech Rock Stars Into Local Schools

Xconomy San Diego — 

In a move that borrows a page from Intel’s “Rock Stars of Engineering” advertising campaign, a San Diego non-profit group is organizing a program that will bring the aspiring rock stars of San Diego’s life sciences industry into local classrooms.

The pilot program, funded by a $100,000 grant from the Cambridge, MA-based Biogen Idec Foundation, will recruit entrepreneurial founders of early stage biotech companies to talk about their breakthrough innovations and why they started their companies. The idea is to get young people excited about studying science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), says Duane Roth, who heads Connect, the 25-year-old non-profit organization that supports technology and entrepreneurship in San Diego.

“So many things have been tried before,” says Roth, who frets that American students just don’t relate to STEM education or see the career possibilities. “We think young people—7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th-graders—relate more to products than to lectures.” By arranging to have entrepreneurs talk about their technologies, Roth says, students can grasp how inventions gets commercialized, and what it takes to bring a product to market.

One early recruit, for example, is Jack DeFranco, CEO of San Diego-based Targeson, which invents ultrasound contrast agents used to detect disease at the molecular level, before someone who is ill even shows any symptoms.

The real Ajay Bhatt

The real Ajay Bhatt

The speaker program is reminiscent of last year’s Intel ad campaign that has swooning workplace groupies surrounding a wonkish, middle-aged man as a screen graphic reads, “Ajay Bhatt, co-inventor of USB,” which is followed by a message that says, “Our rock stars aren’t like your rock stars.” (An actor was portraying the real Ajay Bhatt.) I’m also reminded of a photo spread in GQ magazine last year of the “Rockstars of Science” that paired Eric Topol, the prominent Scripps’ cardiologist and translational medicine researcher, with real-life singers like Seal, Sheryl Crow, and Josh Groban.

I think it is a great idea,” says Larry Bock, a longtime life sciences venture investor in San Diego who heard about the pilot program in March. As executive director of the non-profit USA Science & Engineering Festival, which is scheduled to take place this fall in Washington, D.C., Bock has focused much of his time on identifying ways to get teen-agers stoked about science. “Connect trains its entrepreneurs to effectively communicate their science and technology to non-scientific people,” Bock says. “I can’t think of a better resource to go into schools with a combination of high science, entrepreneurship and effective communication.”

Eric Topol, behind Seal

Eric Topol, behind Seal

Connect plans to use the Biogen-Idec grant to develop a pilot program that can be extended, so that life sciences entrepreneurs also can bring their zeal into classrooms in Boston and Research Triangle Park, NC, where Biogen Idec also operates. In September, for example, the Biogen Idec Foundation awarded a $1 million grant to the North Carolina Biotechnology Center in Research Triangle Park to support the expansion of the Center’s educational training facility for K-12 science teachers.

In a statement released by Connect, Craig Schneier, executive vice president of Biogen Idec and chairman of the foundations board of directors, cited numbers from the National Center for Education Statistics that show U.S. students placed below average in math and science last year. “In math, U.S. high school students were in the bottom quarter of the countries that participate, trailing countries including Finland, China, and Estonia,” Schneier says.

Roth, who worked to develop the pilot with Lynn Schenk, a Biogen Idec board member and prominent San Diego lawyer and politician, says he also hopes to expand the program in San Diego so that high-tech CEOs also can talk about their technologies. He plans to recruit startup founders, CEOs, and other potential speakers from Connect’s Springboard entrepreneurial program, which helps local entrepreneurs to develop their business plans and commercialization strategies, and to refine their investor pitches.

Connect has been working with about 20 high schools throughout the region so far, including the Gary and Jerri-Ann Jacobs High Tech High Charter School, a San Diego high school committed to project-based learning, and Horace Mann Middle School, according to Camille Sobrian Saltman, Connect’s COO.

“We want to make sure we work with schools that don’t have science enrichment programs and not necessarily with the schools that already have that well covered,” she said.