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Demand for Bioinformaticists with MBAs Grows as Companies Face Many Pressures

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The recruit had that magical mix of degrees that glitter as brightly as diamonds in a choosy market leery of coal: a bachelor’s degree in molecular biology and an MBA. Plus, he’d worked for two years at one of the largest biochip companies.

Leveraging that cross-specialization and business savvy, he became director of marketing for a high-growth, pre-IPO firm located in the Pacific Northwest.

Recruiters, headhunters, and academics agree: the market is red-hot for candidates with MBAs who can speak the language of bioinformatics — some experience is a plus.

“Since bioinformatics is such a young field, it’s difficult to find people with previous industry experience to fill positions,” said Lee Kozar, manager of Stanford University’s bioinformatics facility and a biological sciences lecturer at California State University, Hayward.

“What you end up with are marketing people with some software experience or technical people with no business acumen,” Kozar added. “Especially with new product development or company start-ups, it’s important to have someone who understands science but can also talk with potential investors and business partners on their level.”

Matt Takahashi, a headhunter with Executive BioSearch in Palos Verdes Estates, Calif., echoed Kozar’s sentiments. There’s a slew of bioinformatics projects with commercialization as a logical next step, yet the pool of bioinformatics applicants with appropriate business experience is “very scarce,” Takahashi said.

That could cost bioinformatics-based businesses plenty. Promoting from within isn’t a viable option for companies already finding it hard to hire enough bodies to keep up with the workload. And, many smaller firms don’t have the financial resources to hire a pair of specialty gurus — one candidate with killer business credentials and a second with an outstanding science pedigree. They want a super-candidate to bridge both worlds.

“It’s a complex domain and space. Someone without that (science) experience, who just runs a business and doesn’t understand the applications will flounder in that space,” Takahashi said.

And of course, genomics and bioinformatics companies are all hustling after the same small pool of contenders. For those companies with proven technology and strong products, the rewards for bioinformatics candidates with MBAs can be handsome.

One such job seeker working with Takahashi successfully negotiated perks that included a five-figure share of pre-IPO stock and a complete relocation package -- plus the chance to enter the company at a crucial, foundation-building stage.

In many ways, the hybridization trend in the bioinformatics industry mirrors one that technology companies already have embraced. Microsoft, for example, so highly values MBAs that it’s devoted a special website for those recruits.

Amgen was among the biotech companies that adapted early to the degree-hybridization trend. During the company’s early years many top managers held both PhDs and MBAs.

Start-ups are “going from five people to 50 to 500 almost overnight,” says Pete Lasher, assistant dean for external relations at the University of Washington School of Business. “You’re promoting people who are very skilled at what they do, but they’re not necessarily good managers.”

To sate increasing demand for such specialized skill sets, business schools such as the University of Washington are now promoting targeted MBAs.

Deciding to offer a technical management MBA this January on the east side of Lake Washington, a high-tech, start-up haven, was “a no-brainer,” Lasher said. As was offering the program at night and condensing the usual two-year curriculum into an intense 18-month experience.

—Diedtra Henderson

MBA Means Business for Bioinformaticists

What does an MBA add for a candidate with an already impressive scientific background? Plenty, according to Lee Kozar, manager of Stanford University’s bioinformatics facility and biological sciences lecturer at California State University, Hayward:

Product development: Business knowledge plus technical know-how can help to accurately gauge whether to develop software and when to take it to market.

Marketing/sales: Realistically understanding how the company’s product compares with competitors helps to identify which features are the most appropriate to market.

Price point: “I’ll bet not many bioinformaticians have read ‘The Strategy and Tactics of Pricing,’ whereas it should be on the bookshelf of most MBAs,” says Kozar.

Human relations: Sorting out underperforming lumps of coal vs. technically competent diamonds in the rough is easier for hiring managers who are technically savvy themselves.

Accounting/finance: Whether to purchase another company’s intellectual property is rooted in negotiations that plumb knowledge of technical issues, pricing and the company’s financial capabilities, he says.

Legal: Opting to challenge a patent often taps the legal, business, and scientific expertise of company staffers who work with patent lawyers.

—Diedtra Henderson

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