Laboratories breed leaders

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Sergey Sikora emigrated to California from Russia in the 1990s with his parents, who are doctors. It is perhaps unsurprising he went on to get his PhD in molecular biology but less predictable that he subsequently pursued an MBA.

He enjoyed researching such topics as the Sars genome but felt frustrated that he could not see practical results from his work.

With an MBA from the Rady School of Management at the University of California, San Diego, Mr Sikora has joined a niche group of scientists that can also fathom the intricacies of business. “Few business people connect with scientists, nor can many scientists relate to business. With this dual training, I get both.”

Dan LeClair, vice-president of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, says that recently more schools are emphasising entrepreneurship, “and life sciences are a big focus”.

This trend has been spurred by last year’s buoyant biotech industry in the US. The National Venture Capital Association found that more venture capital went into biotech companies than other categories last year. The life sciences sector, which includes biotech and medical device industries, set a record with $9.1bn invested in 862 deals compared with $7.6bn in 786 deals a year earlier. In 2007, life sciences accounted for 31 per cent of all venture capital. While biotech funding is tighter now, the economic crisis has made schools specialising in areas other than finance even more attractive.

The Rady school, opened five years ago, is the only US business school so far specifically pitching itself as a business school for students from the life sciences and technology sectors. The full-time MBA has 115 students. Forty-five per cent of the school’s part-time, flex weekend MBA students hold advanced degrees, 27 per cent are PhDs or MDs. Most Rady students have engineering, technology and science backgrounds. Twenty per cent of the school’s part-time MBAs have PhDs. Those who do not start their own company on graduating often go into consulting, marketing, general management and finance roles with healthcare, biotech or pharmaceutical companies.

Stanford Graduate School of Business, the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and MIT Sloan School of Management also attract scientists.

In 2006, Stanford launched the Summer Institute for Entrepreneurship, specifically for graduate students in sciences, engineering and humanities. Founder Garth Saloner says the institute helps people make an innovation commercially viable. The programme takes 72 students but, this year, twice that number applied.

MIT Sloan’s biomedical enterprise programme, a dual MBA and science masters, has added an entrepreneurship and innovation programme of which biotech is a growing portion.

Robert Sullivan, dean at Rady, says US business schools attract scientists because the programmes, by existing at all, counter an attitude prevalent in western culture that scientists lack what it takes to become business leaders.

“But the scientist’s entrepreneurial spirit can and should be cultivated,” he says. “And any innovative-driven, life science- focused company can only flourish with leaders that understand both sciences and business.”

Scientists sign up for MBAs partly for profit but also for more stimulating, broader thinking work.

Brian Smith, a materials scientist, and Irene Susantio, a fuel engineer, met at Wharton and co-founded Solixia, which offers a pharmaceutical solution to breast cancer imaging.

Wharton’s strong healthcare focus and its proximity to Philadelphia’s pharmaceutical companies ensures that it attracts scientists, physicians, consultants and lawyers focused on the healthcare market.

“We drew from all parts of the healthcare space,” Ms Susantio says. The incubator programme was also pivotal. After pitching their way in the students received office space and advice from alumni. “This was a huge leg-up,” Mr Smith says.

Studying business can be challenging. As an engineer, Ms Susantio says numbers come naturally to her but she finds strategy foreign.

Fiona Murray, associate professor at MIT Sloan, says PhD science students are often shy and introverted compared with the more confident MBAs. Most scientists have worked alone and so initially struggle with team work and the notion there are not always “right” answers in business.

Schools work round this by coaxing answers from their science students and hiring professors with science backgrounds. Prof Murray, for instance, has a PhD in applied sciences.

The students say their transition to business has been empowering. Mr Sikora is vice-president of research and development and business development for a biotech company. Launching start-ups is a real possibility now – something he had never considered before.

“My MBA taught me I’m an entrepreneur at heart.”

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