We designed B2BB to prepare students for the MSM MSBT program, for the biotech industry and/or for starting their own bioventures. For practical purposes, it also prepared students for an online curriculum, as the follow-on Master’s degree program was conducted entirely online. To give students first-hand exposure to biotechnology, the program engaged them with current events—especially the COVID-19 pandemic and the social unrest during the summer of 2020.
The program positioned students to immediately begin the MSBT at MSM at the conclusion of B2BB. At the time of B2BB application, students were aware that if they successfully completed the B2BB program, they would automatically be admitted to and receive a $1,000 scholarship toward the MSBT degree program.
Because graduates of B2BB were automatically admitted to the MSBT program, only applicants who fulfilled the admission criteria for the graduate program were considered for B2BB. When soliciting applications, we targeted under-represented students, especially African Americans and members of other underserved populations anywhere in the United States. We were unable to admit any students from outside the United States because their qualifications did not meet those for the MSBT program. Applicants were juniors or seniors in college at the time of application who showed interest in the field of biotechnology and who preferably had a strong record in science or math. Postbaccalaureates interested in pursuing a career in the biotech industry or with entrepreneurial interests were also considered. Most applicants had majors in science, technology, engineering, arts or mathematics, with explicit interest in healthcare or biomedical services.
We received 326 applications, interviewed 130 applicants and enrolled 54 students into the B2BB program. We interviewed applicants who submitted a complete application, including two letters of references; who had a grade point average (GPA) ≥2.8 (consistent with the requirement for the MSBT program); and who answered “Yes” when asked about their interest in joining the MSBT program.
Interviews lasted ten minutes and included a panel of five interviewers, including creators of the program. Students were asked: (i) “Why do you want to join B2BB?”; (ii) “How will it help your long-term goals?” and (iii) “If not selected for B2BB, will you still apply for the MSBT program?” On a practical level, we also verified students’ availability during the term of the program. Students also needed to commit to the requirements of our B2BB program: to miss no more than two sessions, to complete weekly graded assignments and a research project and to respond to pre- and post-program surveys.
The admissions team recommended interviewees to join the B2BB program based on their academic fitness on a scale of 1–5, which was based on their responses during the interview, letters of recommendations in their applications and interest in matriculating in the fall or spring MSBT program following B2BB.
Curriculum design and rationale
Briefly, the curriculum consisted of an orientation, seven topic-specific modules and a culminating event during which entrepreneurship teams pitched their business propositions. The orientation gave students an overview of the program, personal introductions, online etiquette used throughout the program and what it means to define a value proposition.
The first module, “Research Basics,” covered the basic components of a research grant and project, essential principles of research using animal models and human subjects, and necessary lab safety and etiquette. The “Project Management” module introduced students to the project life cycle and project management processes and distinguished among projects, programs and routine tasks. In the “Career Readiness” module, students began writing job-specific resumes, cover letters and personal statements, and received feedback and interview preparation practice with special attention on developing critical thinking and problem-solving mindsets.
“Making Medicines: The Process of Drug Development” was a week-long intensive, second module covering the life cycle and regulatory and ethical issues involved in developing drugs. Specifically, this module aimed to illuminate the roles and contributions of pharmaceutical companies in advancing new therapies, and the general pathway from drug discovery to the marketplace. We remain extremely grateful for support for this module from Eli Lilly & Company. The module provided (i) an overview of drug development and regulatory approval, drug discovery, a rational approach to drug development, non-clinical and early clinical testing, late-stage clinical trials, the drug approval process and continuous clinical development, i.e., phase 4 clinical trials. A case study module on the COVID-19 pandemic aimed to bring all participants up to date on the current research-based understandings of the virus’ biology, epidemiology and clinical symptomatology. Following these updates, the module reviewed general principles of vaccine design and the latest innovations in developing vaccines against COVID-19.
“Making Medicines” was followed by a module on “Laboratory Safety” and regulatory best practices—Good Laboratory Practice (GLP), Good Clinical Practice (GCP) and Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP). The learning objectives were for students to understand best practices relevant to any biotech-related business in the United States. They were expected to understand root cause analysis; to explain the different classes of hazards, hygiene plans, exposure limits, safety controls, etc.; to be able to describe key elements of hazard communication; and to understand Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) limits by the end of the B2BB program.
A “Public Health Informatics Boot Camp” module gave students hands-on exposure to coding, working with statistics, MySQL databases, languages of the internet (HTML, XML and JSON), the basics of data analysis and Python coding, and group project presentations using data from the Centers for Disease Control on COVID-19. A silver lining from this pandemic is that considerable data and information were available, allowing us to incorporate these datasets into our program.
After a preparatory module called “Lean Biotech Start-up & Entrepreneurship: I-CORPS and the Path to Commercialization,” students embarked on their final project, “Value Proposition and Business Model of a Biotechnology.” These projects gave students an immersive experience in the pipeline for creating a product or service in biotechnology, with defining a value proposition and customer discovery as the core exercises. During this module, students spent substantial amounts of time talking with customers and testing their biotech business hypotheses. They regularly submitted a record of their team’s discovery process to the instructors and gave daily five-minute presentations about their progress. The module culminated in a ‘pitch’ day, when teams highlighted their business premises and the value propositions of their minimum viable products. This aspect of the B2BB program reached beyond the offerings of other pipeline programs of which we are aware because it prepared students for additional advanced degrees, such as medicine, dentistry, nursing and PhD degrees, as learning what is valued in different biotech sectors reinforced their working and practical knowledge of allied health disciplines. This particular module stands out by exposing students to essential elements of business—forming a business model, developing and testing business hypotheses and forming relationships with key opinion leaders (KOLs). Thus, the B2BB program provided an experience that reflects current activities in the biotech industry more than any existing pipeline program.
We note that external partnerships were critical toward these goals. This first external partnership of the B2BB program was with Eli Lilly. Importantly, the “Making Medicines” module included a day lecture and exercises with a radio and television host, Rashad Richey, who gave an overview of how to navigate political issues around healthcare and health equity, along with marketing and personal and product branding.
In addition, receiving 326 applications vastly exceeded our expectations, as we originally anticipated having only 15 participants for this first cohort. To help us accommodate this overwhelming interest, the United Negro College Fund provided financial support that allowed 54 students to enter B2BB. Notably, 30 of the 106 survey respondents (28.3%) were first-generation college students.
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