From audits to autopsies

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In her human pathology course recently, Rupa Bahri performed her first autopsy. And she has just learnt how to take blood.

These are standard exercises for the average medical student but Ms Bahri is not training to be a doctor. She is a second-year MBA candidate at the US’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology, enrolled in Sloan Business School’s biomedical enterprise programme (BEP). Ms Bahri, who hopes one day to start a medical device company, says: “The medical community needs business leaders who understand the science – it’s a specialised skill set. I don’t want to feel alienated [in my career] by scientists and engineers.”

She chose the programme in part because it was based in Cambridge – in the Boston area – which, with nearly 150 life sciences companies headquartered there, is a hotbed of biotechnology. “Boston was a huge draw,” she says. “It’s got a big healthcare community and I wanted to be immersed in that environment.”

MIT is not the only business school in the region increasing its focus on biotechnology. Many others are capitalising on their location by offering special courses – in some cases an entire curriculum – designed for students planning to pursue careers at the intersection of science and business.

“Business schools are always aware of what the economic environment is like – which industries are growing and which are ebbing,” says Barbara Blair of the FW Olin Graduate School of Business at Babson College, in Wellesley, Massachusetts. “Of course, they’re also tuned in to the businesses that surround them and in Boston it’s biotech and biopharma that are the growing, hot industries.”

Boston is home to companies such as Biogen, Genzyme and Amgen as well as a number of well-known teaching hospitals – namely Tufts, Harvard and Boston University. According to a recent study by the Brookings Institution research group, Boston attracts the largest research investments in the US, with more than $3.9bn in pharmaceutical-biotech research alliances since 1996.

MIT’s specialised MBA programme began as a response to faculty and industry concern that there was a need to give students planning life sciences careers a foundation in management and fluency in the language of biomedical science, says Bonnie Fendrock, director of programme development at the BEP.

“There was a real hole in the curriculum for those who wanted to work on teams with scientists yet lacked a pragmatic understanding of how to read and evaluate scientific literature critically,” she says.

Today, the 21 students in MIT’s programme – which is jointly administered by Sloan and the Harvard-MIT division of health sciences and technology – take management and preclinical courses and spend a month in a hospital shadowing a practising physician. They also take dedicated classes about the biotechnology industry, including the principles and practice of drug development, clinical trials in the biomedical enterprise and strategic decision-making in the biomedical ­business.

“Besides an understanding of the diseases you’re working on, there are unique issues to marketing a biotech product,” says Ms Fendrock, who spent 20 years in the biotech industry before coming to MIT.

“You need to know how to design a clinical trial, how to manage the licensing process and how to deal with the legal and intellectual property issues. It’s very different from marketing toothpaste or any other consumer product.”

Corporate participation comes in the form of campus speakers, industry conferences and symposia. Students also have opportunities to work on field studies and consulting projects with local companies.

Other Boston area schools are also increasing their focus on biotechnology. Both Babson and Harvard have added special, week-long courses to their executive education programmes, which are geared towards professionals who already work in the biotech industry and need to strengthen their understanding of strategy, finance and marketing.

“The real impetus was that there were a number of people with deep scientific knowledge and expertise but they lacked the necessary business skills as they moved up in their organisation or their organisation matured,” says Phil Barta, director of Babson’s executive education programme.

Harvard Business School has also ramped up its biotech offerings for its standard MBA programmes. This year it began an integrated MD/MBA programme with Harvard Medical School that focuses on how to deliver and finance health services, as well as how to develop and market pharmaceuticals, medical devices and other health-related products. The five-year programme – the Harvard MBA typically lasts two years, while an MD programme lasts six years – involves three years of coursework at the medical school, one full year at the business school and one year of electives from both schools.

There have been more subtle changes, too. Over the past few years, the school has invested $1.5m to “seed the curriculum” with pursuits related to healthcare, biotechnology and pharmaceuticals, including 110 cases and three full courses, according to Gary Pisano, an HBS professor and author of the book The Science Business: Strategy, Organization, and Leadership in Biotechnology. “It’s quite a large investment by the school,” he says.

Bill Sahlman, an HBS professor who concentrates on entrepreneurship, says it is not necessarily a given that to be great in the life sciences business you must also be a great scientist: “There are a lot of common skills and many lessons from general business that apply.”

He and other faculty members regularly visit local biotech companies and labs in an effort to “understand the specific issues that managers of science-based companies face and to see how the science gets done”.

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