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Columbia launches diversity program to bring underrepresented into life science entrepreneurship

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The tech transfer program at Columbia University in New York City, with funding from Digitalis Commons and the J. Gurwin Foundation, has launched a diversity program that will provide eligible Columbia grad students and postdocs with educational programming, mentorship, networking, and funding opportunities for careers in life science innovation.

The Diversity & Inclusion in Commercialization & Entrepreneurship (DICE) program is open to graduate students and postdocs who identify as being from traditionally underrepresented groups, using the NIH definitions of those groups (available online here.)

DICE’s goal is to prepare participants for careers in bringing life science innovation to market, says Orin Herskowitz, executive director of Columbia Technology Ventures, the university’s TTO.

“At Columbia, we are lucky in our tech transfer office that the university really believes in the broader mission of getting these amazing innovations out of the lab and into the market where they can save lives,” Herskowitz says. “Columbia has supported us over the years to not just focus on patenting and licensing, but rather on all the other aspects required to take these technologies across the valley of death. That’s entrepreneurship education, access to prototyping, connections to mentors and advisors, and also creating a really robust talent pool.”

Columbia leaders recognized that part of encouraging a robust talent pool was having a funnel to ensure that pool is as diverse and inclusive as possible, Herskowitz says. “That’s good for the innovations themselves, but also to make sure we don’t have students in the Columbia community who don’t have access to this exciting career path,” he says.

Many universities have put an emphasis on diversity, particularly with faculty recruitment and retention, notes Mária Rahmany, PhD, MBA, senior business development officer with Columbia Technology Ventures.

“At CTV we wanted to do our part to contribute, and we wanted to make sure that whatever program we run, the goals are aligned with what we do as a tech transfer office,” Rahmany says. “The program is geared to PhD students, postdocs, and master’s students that are still early career. We want to try to give them access to information, access to education on commercialization, and expand their network for potential paths forward in the future.”

The program is intended to help underrepresented students access all the opportunities afforded by tech transfer, adds Joan José Martínez, PhD, senior technology licensing officer with CTV.

“We’ve noticed for a while that there is a lack of representation when it comes to minorities and women in life science commercialization,” Martinez says. “The data show that even though the student body for these program may have a certain representation for these groups, the number of those students going into the biotech industry or these fields in life science commercialization isn’t quite what it should be.”

Can’t be what you can’t see

Students from underrepresented groups often do not have exposure to career options and success stories in tech transfer, Rahmany says.

“One of my favorite sayings is that you cannot be what you cannot see, and that is something we can very easily address by taking advantage of the network we have at CTV with pharma groups, investors, and entrepreneurs,” she says. “A key component of the program is fireside chats where we have folks who are successful in industry come tell their stories of how they got to where they are now and what hurdles they overcame to get there.”

Rahmany and Martinez are planning to study the metrics of Columbia graduates who have been through the program. They expect to have 20 participants in the first cohort.

“We want to see where these students go. What are their next steps?” Rahmany says. “Let’s see if giving them access to this network helps their next steps. How many of these students stay in academia, and if they do, how many invention reports are they submitting because now they know what a patent is? How many of them go into entrepreneurship and venture capital?”

Martínez is eager to see how the program affects the trajectory of students who might otherwise not have been exposed to tech transfer opportunities.

“It’s a little hard to suss out whether they would have gone in the same direction without this program, but from our perspective even if one student thinks about commercialization [when they otherwise] wouldn’t have, or joins a biotech company, or launches a start-up on their own on the basis of having been in this program, I think that would qualify as a success,” he says.

Contact Herskowitz at oh2120@columbia.edu; Martínez at joan.martinez@columbia.edu; and Rahmany at mr3457@columbia.edu.


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