Why the pen is sometimes mightier than the pipette – Part 2

Author: Paul Krzyzanowski, 04/16/13

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Last week I posted a summary of the first half of a full day Communications for Scientists workshop organized by the Stem Cell Network. This post picks up where I left off, with a description of a “Dragon’s Den” style pitch session intended to introduce trainees to necessary communications skills within a commercialization context.

The team with the winning pitch. Each team member won a registration to the 2013 Till and McCulloch Meetings.

Specifically, the commercialization workshop tested participants’ skills at putting together a four minute pitch for $500,000, to be used to push one of three technologies closer to commercialization: A microfluidic device; a bioreactor system to grow up natural killer (NK) cells; and a protocol to differentiate lung airway cells from human iPS cells.

The case-based approach was exciting, especially since most people were assigned subjects well out of their expertise and we had less than 24 hours to meet our teammates, plan a commercialization strategy, and assemble our pitches.

With pitches ready, each group had their chance to face a panel of judges in a Dragon’s Den-style and convince them that their plan was worthy of an investment: Kevin Canning, from GlaxoSmithKline, a self-described scout for academic-industrial collaborations; Jamie Stiff, a partner at Genesys Capital, a venture capital fund that focuses on very early stage biotech companies, and Terry Thomas, a Senior Vice-President at Stemcell Technologies who has overseen expansion of the company’s product portfolio by over a thousand products.

The experience was a challenging one, with the biggest obstacle facing teams was learning how to set aside academically interesting ideas that wouldn’t help commercialize their technology.

For instance, my group had many great ideas for the NK-cell bioreactor case: What limits the cell growth and purity? What protein markers could we use to monitor or control the system? How can we optimize the media formulation?

In the end, the key information lacking in our case was straightforward equivalency of the cells: Do the bioreactor derived NK-cells function as well as NK-cells produced within the body, or better? Without proving that, why would anyone pay for our cells?

At the end of the day, it seemed to me that the pitches each group perfected were much like those given throughout graduate school but with slightly a different spin, trying to hit an idea that’s profitable instead of scientifically novel. It’s definitely a different perspective on projects that I value and hope to develop in the future.

All in all the workshop exposed many individuals, mostly trainees, to two vastly different and exciting uses of their scientific training. It likely a few with much to consider regarding what they really want from their academic training.

Sometimes, planting a little uncertainty into a person’s mind is all that’s required to lead them in the right direction, and that, I think, was the most valuable thing many trainees took away from this workshop.

Highly recommended.

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Paul Krzyzanowski

Paul is a computational biologist and writer living in Toronto. He's been a contributor to Signals for three years, writing articles for the general public about how biotechnology and biomedical research can be used to solve pressing medical problems. Alongside Paul's experience in computational biology,
 bioinformatics, and molecular genetics, he's interested in how academic research develops into real world, commercial technology, and what's needed for the Canadian biotech industry needs to grow. Paul is currently a Post-doctoral Fellow at the Ontario Institute of Cancer Research. Prior to joining the OICR, he worked at the Ottawa Hospital Research 
Institute and earned a Ph.D. from the University of Ottawa, specializing in computational biology. And finally, Paul earned an H.B.Sc. from the University of Toronto a long time ago. Paul's blog can be read at www.checkmatescientist.net
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