Competition For Biotech Talent Heats Up, Sparks New Degree Program

Biotech is a billion-dollar industry populated by the best and brightest found everywhere from Boston’s ivy league offerings to overseas talent seeking out American opportunities. The industry has experienced explosive growth over the last two decades and the recent up swell of well-funded startups has newly-made CEOs throwing elbows with big pharma execs for the affections of an educated elite recently convocated from their ivory tower alma maters.

Robert Forrester, chief executive of Verastem Oncology, describes America’s East Coast as “the number one place in the world for doing biotech. The depth of scientific expertise is extraordinary, with all the universities, the depth of capital, and the people – the pool of people is also extraordinary.”

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“Having said that, it is very competitive,” he added. “We’ve been hiring madly over the last six months, and there are an increasing number of companies here that are well funded.”

Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have long been considered the traditional bastions of biotech academia but the east coast is not for everyone. University of California Riverside, on the other hand, is pretty sure that the west coast is the best coast and recently began offering a Professional Science Master’s Degree (PSM) in Industrial Biotechnology.

The new degree is meant to close the educational gap for scientists and technicians interested in pursuing highly skilled positions within the healthcare, biofuels, agriculture and industrial chemistry industries. The program will reside in UC’s new Center for Industrial Biotechnology and administered by the Marlon and Rosemary Bourns College of Engineering’s Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering.

A gap in training was identified for graduates interested in process sciences positions but lacked the necessary skills and were required to take on other roles. According to the UC Riverside website, the PSM “addresses this limitation with a rigorous curriculum that combines coursework on process sciences, bioprocess development, plant design, safety and control, with internships in biotech companies.”

If the United States wants to stay competitive, they will have to work hard to stay ahead of up-and-coming competitors like China. More venture capital than ever is migrating east and historical Cathay knows better than anyone that human capital is a hot commodity. On the national level, the government launched their “National Thousand Talents Program” – an initiative designed to lure top Chinese scientists back to their homeland to support the country’s burgeoning biotech business. In 2017, Chinese biotechs collected $11.7 billion in seed-capital and many Shanghai-based life science startups can list with the Hong Kong Stock Exchange way earlier than they could before due to a change in the rules.

“I think everybody struggles with recruitment. We are all competing with each other, we’re all recruiting from each other,” Forrester said. “For some roles… you basically need to recruit someone who is already employed somewhere else. There is essentially zero unemployment for these sorts of positions.”

Competition has gone global and to stay competitive, America will have to think long-term to keep an educational edge in an age where ideas and innovation flow freely across land and ocean.