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Philadelphia Project Recruits Regional High Schools to Nurture Next-Gen Life-Sci Sector

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The CEO of a Philadelphia-based biotech startup has teamed up with local educators and others to develop a series of programs intended to grow and strengthen the region’s life-science workforce.
 
Chad Womack, CEO and co-founder of vaccine developer NanoVec, will oversee the workforce-development effort as president and executive director of the new Philadelphia Biotechnology and Life Sciences Institute, which will oversee the project.
 
The project, the first for the nonprofit institute, kicks off this summer when more than 50 students from at least two Philadelphia high schools will be taught the basics of the life sciences, both through classroom instruction and through placement as interns in life-science jobs.
 
Womack said one key goal of the program is to place high-school seniors in paid internships during the summer months at a company and/or laboratory in the Philadelphia area. Over time, he hopes to expand the institute’s programs to every one of the city school district’s high school regions, which would allow for between 200 and 250 students in the institute’s programs. 
 
The project has so far signed on Ben Franklin HS near Center City and George Washington HS in Northeast Philadelphia. According to Womack, between 25 and 30 students from each school will participate in the academy project, which will require them to maintain at least a B average and secure a teacher’s recommendation. A high school in West Philadelphia may join the project, but that has yet to be finalized, he said.
 
The PBLSI, which was launched on May 28, is also exploring offering internships during high school students’ final senior-year semester, which would allow them to work on a project part-time and present their results for credit as part of their high-school studies.
 
Another institute program launching this summer will teach enriched math and science to about 25 middle-school students starting in the seventh grade, then morph into a summertime life sciences internship training program. Unlike the academy, the “life sciences scholars” program would seek top performing public- and private-school students, both from Philadelphia and suburban school districts. The scholars program will serve between 100 to 125 students per grade once it is fully up and running, for a total scholars class of up to 500 students.
 
“We’re dealing with the full span of the pipeline, from middle school all the way out to graduate school. We’re not only looking to build the pipeline, we’re looking at where are the leaks in the pipeline as well,” Womack told BioRegion News last week. “The main goal of the career academy is to provide an opportunity for students to see what the industry is about in terms of career options, and then secondly, to empower them — enable them to be able to chart their own course and path, from point A to point B.
 
“They could see what the academic requirements are for them to go in the directions that they’re interested in — whether it is to be a bench scientist, to be an entrepreneur, to be in executive management, to be a lawyer dealing with intellectual property,” he added.
 
Eventually, the PBLSI will develop summer programs for college students, support a fellowship program to teach them research and entrepreneurship skills, and create a bio-entrepreneurship “boot camp” and fellowship program for graduate students and professionals in the region interested in launching their own companies, said Womack.
 
The institute has secured about a half-million dollars in seed funding from Pennsylvania’s Department of Health, and will continue to pursue funds from the commonwealth’s departments of education and of labor and industry, as well as from the city government, the US National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, private foundations, and private biotech and pharmaceutical companies
 
Womack’s company, NanoVec, was founded in 2005 and develops nanotechnology-based vaccines and drugs against cancer, biothreats, and infectious diseases. A year later, the company won $150,000 in seed funding from Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania, an independent not-for-profit economic development organization.
 
With three full-time staffers, NanoVec is one of around 400 life-science companies in and around the City of Brotherly Love, according to a 2005 estimate by the Milken Institute. Those businesses, as well as the region’s research institutes and universities, are looking to train more than 5,000 new workers over the next three years, according to the Delaware Valley Innovation Network, a 14-county, three-state consortium. The alliance was created in 2005 and funded with a $5.2 million Workforce Innovation in Regional Economic Development, or WIRED, grant from the US Department of Labor.
 

“We need that chain to fill the pipeline and make people available for hire.”

According to Womack, the newly minted PBLSI will complement and build on the work of other private and public groups to train students for life-science careers. One such group is the Wistar Institue, which operates training programs for high school and college students, doctoral candidates, and postdocs.
 
For high schoolers, Wistar operates an eight week summer training program in biomedical research. For community college students interested in research technician jobs, Wistar has teamed up with the Community College of Philadelphia to develop the Biomedical Technician Training Program that awards associate in arts degrees.
 
The technician-training program will complete its eighth year in August. “By then, we should have 54 persons completing the program. To date, a good half of those people have taken a position within six months of completing the program,” said William Wunner, administrative coordinator of Wistar’s biomedical technician training program.
 
He said students were mostly looking for [jobs in] academia, “possibly because of the benefits that still accrue, such as tuition assistance to get on with coursework or other degrees.” Some have gone on to industry jobs, but only after getting four-year degrees.
 
“There’s a growth,” said Wunner, who is also director of Wistar’s High School Training Program. “There’s a groundswell of activity at the moment with developing programs.”
 
Womack’s new institute could help develop talent for industry and academia as well as for Wistar’s programs, Wunner said. “Starting an advanced training program at the secondary school level is very helpful and much needed to bring in a body of young students who really have a feel for science already and a direction — a pathway toward further training and focused training on special disciplines. That’s very helpful,” he said. “We need that chain to fill the pipeline and make people available for hire.”
 
He said the more successful training programs are those that have won support from industry or research partners like Wistar “to commit to the internships and the training, the time and effort preparing” students.
 
“That just doesn’t happen automatically. They have to have experience in a laboratory. They have to be given opportunity to work in a laboratory, to get accustomed to the work,” Wunner said. “That has yet to develop in a programmatic fashion, although there are efforts along the lines to make that happen.”
 
Among groups working to develop those programs is the Life Science Career Alliance, created by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Regional Workforce Investment Board Collaborative and the Delaware Valley Healthcare Council, with healthcare as well as pharmaceutical, biotech, and medical device jobs in mind.
 
Earlier this year, the alliance conducted an online survey seeking the views of regional life-science employers and other stakeholders on factors likely to sway development of new workforce programs. Questions included: Which population groups merit the most resources and focus over the next five years? Which industry indicators were the most valuable and should be watched the closest?
 
The results are intended to help the alliance and DVIN perform an in-depth study of workforce needs for Philadephia-area life-science employers. The last time the alliance completed such a study — a 2003 update of The Delaware Valley Life Sciences Workforce: An Analysis of Current and Future Needs — it concluded that between 2000 and 2010 pharmaceutical manufacturing jobs would increase by 12.8 percent, or by 3,660 jobs, to 32,310 positions.
 
Employment in all life-science and health services-related occupations was projected to increase by more than 20,000 during that time, with total employment expected to exceed 200,000in the Philadelphia metro area by 2010.
 
Also, DVIN is preparing to award more than $2.4 million in grants over the next three years through a new Innovation Investment Fund that aims to pay for a variety of workforce programs — including training of new and existing industry workers, internships, and co-operative learning programs, as well as professional and curriculum development for educators. The network has set a July 1 deadline for applications for its first round of grants from the new fund, with deadlines for additional rounds set every three months through 2009.
 
Eligible to apply are 501(c)3 non-profit organizations, individual businesses or business partnerships, educational entities, economic development organizations, workforce intermediaries, and community-based organizations. Click here for investment fund guidelines.
 
Womack said the institute hopes to work with many of those organizations to develop new programs and expand existing ones — from DVIN, Wistar, and the alliance to academic institutions. In launching the bio-entrepreneurship and fellowship programs for undergrads and grad students, he said, the institute would work with schools like Temple University’s Fox School of Business, Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business, USP’s Mayes College of Healthcare Business and Policy, and University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.
 
Another priority, he said, was developing more specialized life-science programs focusing on career specialization fields, such as bioinformatics and the various “omics” technologies; as well as building a domestic workforce capable of filling jobs as students from Asia and Europe increasingly find employment in their own countries.
 
“We’re less interested in building a brick-and-mortar edifice called the institute, with all the programs inside. That’s not what we’re doing. We’re taking the opposite approach,” Womack said. “We’re minimizing our own administration and staff, and networking and partnering with groups like Wistar to build programs that are going to address key issues of the workforce and human capital development” from high school through professional levels.
 
The opportunity to get further involved in forming the institute and its programs, Womack said, helped persuade him to move back to his native Philadelphia last year, after spending a couple of years commuting between Philly and Bethesda, Md.
 
“I’m a PhD scientist and I’m a bio-entrepreneur,” he said. “I understand these issues intimately and personally. And I’m a big fan of the biotechnology industry. I understand that in order for the industry to survive it will require the workforce, the human capital, a) in multiple directions; b) that is much more robust than it currently is.
 
“We really have to address these issues of diversifying the workforce as well,” Womack said. “For all those reasons and more, I am very passionate about doing something that will address the pipeline issue in a way that will be meaningful to the different stakeholders in the state.”
 
The institute was launched with an event at The Hub, Cira Centre, that included addresses by Phil Gerbino, president of the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia; Sallie Glickman, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Workforce Investment Board; Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Calvin Johnson; state Rep. Duane Milne (R-Willistown), state Sen. Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia), and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter.
 
Nutter’s wife, Lisa, is president of a nonprofit organization that has worked with Womack over the past two years to launch the institute. She runs Philadelphia Academies, which oversees a network of 33 career academies in the city, all training public high school students for a variety of careers.
 
An outgrowth of the 1969 riots, Philadelphia Academies boasts an 86-percent graduation rate and a near-zero percent dropout rate — no small claims in a city whose public schools graduated only 49.6 percent of students in 2003-04, according to US Department of Education data included in a report released in April by America’s Promise Alliance.
 
“Basically, Lisa and I wanted to create an opportunity for high school students attending public schools to have an entrée into the bio/life science industry in the greater Philadelphia area,” Womack recalled. “And what we realized was that there was no connection between the for-profit or private sector and the school district with regard to creating opportunities for students to learn what’s possible for them in terms of careers.”
 
“What we embarked upon two years ago was, how do you bring academic diversity — we have a large footprint — to the table with the school district, with the city government, and with the private sector, pharmaceuticals and biotech companies? How do you bring those to the table?” he said. “We built programs that didn’t exist, and enhance programs that do exist, and make sure there’s a flow through the pipeline that quite frankly, up to this point, has been stagnant. That was the central question that launched this initiative.”

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