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Away from Academia

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It's your classic catch-22: how do you land that first industrial job when every company requires applicants to have prior experience in industry? At the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, that problem — in conjunction with the ongoing dilemma of keeping talent in-state — has spurred the launch  of its Industrial Fellowship Program this summer.

Through the program, the biotech center offers five grants to companies in the state that each fully covers the cost of salary and benefits for a two-year fellowship. The biotech center chooses the participating companies through an application process — its inaugural participants are Affinergy, Aldagen, BASF, Targacept, and Tengion — and then interested students or postdocs at universities in North Carolina apply to them.

The program is overseen by Shobha Parthasarathi, technology development director at the biotech center. "I've done an industrial postdoc myself," says Parthasarathi, who was a fellow at Millennium Pharmaceuticals. "I understand what a difference it makes" to get that industrial experience.

For North Carolina, the goal is to keep young scientists from flocking to other states after completing a university stint. In 2006, North Carolina schools conferred 280 PhDs to students in life sciences; currently, universities there employ some 3,000 postdocs. Statistics show that relatively few of those will go on to tenure-track academic careers, and many will leave the state for opportunities elsewhere. "There was this huge need that we saw" to provide students and postdocs with industry-side experience, since that's the ultimate path so many of them will choose anyway, Parthasarathi says.

The program is currently in its pilot phase, and Parthasarathi says the biotech center has been pleased with the interest level from companies and students. For five fellowship positions, the center received applications from 18 candidate companies and from 30 interested students or postdocs based in North Carolina.

Structurally, the biotech center decided it made more sense to give grants to the participating companies to cover the fellows' costs. This way, Parthasarathi says, fellows are paid directly by the companies — "they'll be subjected to the company standards," she notes. At the end of the two-year term, "companies are under no obligation to hire the fellow." Parthasarathi adds that the benefit to the companies, many of which have about 30 employees, is significant. In such small organizations, getting a free PhD scientist can be a considerable asset, she says.

Students who win the fellowships get far more than just a two-year gig and another line on their résumés. Companies must provide a senior scientist to mentor their fellow, and Parthasarathi serves as a secondary mentor. She's planning to get the fellows involved in networking and other events put on by the biotech center and to introduce them to entrepreneurial organizations within the state. Fellows will have access to professional development resources and will "get to meet a lot of CEOs and CSOs," she adds.

Currently, the biotech center provides full funding for the fellows' salaries and benefits, but Parthasarathi says the goal is to team up with partners to share the costs so the program could offer more fellowships per year. The program will cost $260,000 in its first year and about $528,000 in its second year (assuming a second round of five fellowships). Most of the biotech center's funding for the program came from the state.

The rollout of the program happened very quickly, she notes, and the strategy is simple enough that she believes any organization could follow suit to promote industrial opportunities in a region or state. "I just can't see any disadvantage," she says. "If you can get the funds to do it, there's just nothing like it."

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