It can be argued that among talent, cash and technology, no factor is more critical to a start up than talent. The talent drives innovation, attracts the venture capital and makes the critical life or death choices of the company. No matter how groundbreaking the technology or the amount of money invested, it is the people steering the ship that can sail off into the sunset or crash into rocks. This can be said for all sectors, especially life sciences.
That is why the focus of many of the discussions in the Seattle community about our life science industry center on generating a vibrant talent pool. Though the primary concern is on the recruitment and retention of the existing talent by generating an ‘anchor’ company, Seattle must not forget to be proactive with cultivating the young scientific entrepreneurs and talented businesspeople that want to build great new companies, and their careers, already here in the Northwest.
Before you jump to conclusion that this is some rant by a whiney grad student, I have to say upfront that the Seattle business community is incredibly generous when it comes to helping advise an aspiring yet naïve entrepreneur such as myself. Since I moved here 4 years ago from the East Coast to pursue my PhD in bioengineering at the University of Washington, I never knew the distinction between a biotech executive and a poor student could evaporate so effortlessly by simply walking into a coffee shop. Rarely have I been turned down by any person from industry scientist to CEO for an invitation to enjoy a cup and a conversation. I have met with countless of Seattle’s biotech and med device elite under the premise of me being an eager scientist wanting to learn how to turn ideas in the lab into a marketable product that helps people live better lives. Each time the conversation was as casual as the North Face attire some of them wore. I have tried to soak up every ounce of wisdom they have shared and am eternally grateful to each of them for their invaluable time they donated to my education.
I have noticed, however, that it takes a particularly aggressive student, especially in the life sciences, to recognize not only the possibility, but the necessity to educate themselves beyond the classroom. I was introduced to the concept through a student founded/run non-profit organization called the Science & Engineering Business Association (SEBA). Through SEBA, I am able to operate in the borderlands where university science education meets real world business and see firsthand the stagnant traffic flow between the two. On the student side, a majority are either intimidated by the prospect of meeting professionals outside the lab or under the false assumption that career success is solely dependent upon scholastic merit. On the business side, many seem to have an operator receiving calls but not too many making them. Each side seems to have its bias of the other which fortifies the walls between them and creates a culture that stifles the flow of information and growth of talent.
Many organizations have been trying to cross this cultural divide by generating both excitement and confidence in the students while providing a platform for the business community to share the advice it has to offer. The Center of Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) has partnered with SEBA to host two annual events promoting and educating young innovators: Entrepreneurship Week and the Science & Technology Showcase. Entrepreneurship Week is a series of events and activities that brings individuals in the business community to the University as well as the students to the companies around Seattle. The Science & Technology Showcase is a poster/pitch competition hosted in collaboration with the Tech Transfer Office for young scientists to present their marketable innovations to venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and MBA students. Last year, the Washington Biotechnology and Biomedical Association recruited SEBA to expand the showcase to reach universities around the Northwest and present their ideas at the Pre-Emerging Poster Session at Life Science Innovation Northwest (formerly Invest Northwest). Other community organizations like the Northwest Entrepreneurs Network are also making efforts by providing student scholarships to attend their Entrepreneur University that reduces the tuition to $50 for individuals. Despite these efforts listed and many others not mentioned, there is still a false belief that the University as an entity is not willing to shed the confines of the ivory tower that have stood tall for years.
While, many people within the University are making great strides in moving towards a more integrated academic environment with the life science business community, it’s time for both university students and more members of the business community to do their part to reach out. For the real changes the Northwest life science industry needs, it’s time to forget the past, drop the bias and have a second look at what is happening at the University. It’s not just the place where basic science is explored, and a few startups are launched, but it’s an underutilitized training ground for talented young people who will help lead the local life sciences industry for years to come.
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