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Bio I-Corps tackles lack of diversity in pharma and biotech entrepreneurship


By Jesse Schwartz
Published: November 24th, 2020

A detailed article on the Bio I-Corps program and its successes in boosting diversity and inclusiveness in biotech entrepreneurship appears in the November issue of Technology Transfer Tactics. To subscribe and access the full article, as well as the publication’s 13+ year archive of best practices and success strategies for TTOs, click here.

Biotech and pharma have a diversity issue, and they know it.

In January 2020, the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO) released the report, “Measuring Diversity in the Biotech Industry: Building an Inclusive Workforce,” which assesses the progress that 100 biotech companies have made towards diversity of gender, race and ethnicity. The report shows that, at the lower levels, gender equity isn’t doing so bad: overall, 45% of their employees are female. However, diversity shrinks at the higher levels: only 30% of executives and 18% of board members are female. People of color (POCs) make up only 32% of their employees; and only 15% of POCs are executives, and 14% of biotech corporate board members are people of color.

There are many reasons for the dismal numbers. In some cases, it may be that individuals from underrepresented groups do not have role models to demonstrate the possibilities of a viable career path. Another reason is that potential participants live outside of bio-entrepreneurship hubs and miss out on the connections that would inspire them to pursue a career in biotech or pharma. Additional obstacles include challenges with ideation, lack of team-building skills, and low self-confidence.

The problems that prevent underrepresented groups from pursuing biotech and pharma careers were well known to Susan Baxter, a former leader of the California State University (CSU) Program for Education and Research in Biotechnology. In that role, from which she recently retired, Baxter was responsible for strategic planning and new initiatives related to the life sciences across the CSU system’s 23 campuses. She also was PI for a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to start the California State University I-Corps program and served on the board of the California Life Sciences Institute, a statewide biotech industry association.

In 2016, Baxter spoke at a workshop panel on bio-entrepreneurship and innovation co-hosted by the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) during the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO) convention in San Francisco. Chad Womack, senior director of STEM Initiatives at UNCF, coordinated the workshop.

“It was a good workshop, but it was passive learning,” says Baxter. She noted that attendees, who were primarily doctoral level students from HBCUs, sat in rows or tables and had “a whole line of very well-informed people come and talk at them.” After the event, Baxter and Womack agreed: “We need to do this the I-Corps way.” They decided to partner and create what was to become the BIO I-Corps Bio-entrepreneurship workshop.

Baxter and Womack assembled a teaching team for the project, including Stanley Maloy and Cathy Pucher from San Diego State University, and Marc Sedam from the University of New Hampshire. Maloy, associate vice president for research and innovation at SDSU, co-founded his first company as an undergraduate and now consults with large agricultural and pharmaceutical companies and small biotechs. Pucher works with aspiring entrepreneurs at SDSU’s Zahn Innovation Platform Launchpad and has more than 20 years of experience in the high-tech industry. Sedam is vice provost for innovation and new ventures at UNH and is currently the PI of UNH’s National Science Foundation I-Corps Site, and serves on the AUTM Board of Directors.

The team brought together a broad array of entrepreneurial talent and offered the new Bio I-Corps workshop the next summer at the BIO Convention in San Diego. The NSF has funded the workshop for the past four years, augmented with significant support from UNCF, the Genentech Foundation, AUTM, and VentureWell.

The Bio I-Corps program serves under-represented bio-entrepreneurs who are early-career life science and bioengineering researchers working in academia. The program has some similarities to I-Corps, but its creators have removed the barriers that typically deter underrepresented groups from participating. Typical barriers include believing that the ideation process should be complete before applying, lacking the skills to build a project team, and lack of self-confidence.

The most significant difference between I-Corps and Bio I-Corps training is that the latter does not require its participants to arrive with intellectual property in hand. “People put it on themselves and say, I need to have my intellectual property de-risked at a certain level before I can go to I-Corps,” explains Baxter. “We hear that all the time on our campuses, but especially with underrepresented groups. They weren’t applying because they thought they didn’t have enough IP.”

At the Bio I-Corps workshops, participants engage in an ideation design thinking process that frees them from hierarchical relationships they might have with faculty advisors elsewhere. Participants break into teams of about five people to define a problem and come up with a solution.

Maloy emphasizes that a core of the program is that participants work on ‘problems worth solving,’ rather than focusing on a problem because it is solvable or because someone finds it interesting. The problem needs to matter enough to somebody to be a marketable idea. “Coming up with problems worth solving is a really hard thing,” says Maloy. “And the diversity of the groups allows them to think of problems that maybe a less diverse group wouldn’t have come up with because they have different experiences.”

Each team member first brainstorms individually for a fixed amount of time about defining the problem. Then they share their ideas and group them. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re a faculty or whether you’ve done a certain number of hours in the lab,” explains Pucher. “Everyone shares their ideas until the last idea has been shared.” The process of listening to every voice helps to boost the self-confidence of all group members. “It’s not ‘Kumbaya,’” stresses Baxter. “There has to be effectiveness, and there has to be progress. But giving people a voice is how innovation works — that’s how diversity adds to new ideas. And it doesn’t work if people don’t feel like they can contribute or speak.”

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