From The Editor | April 6, 2020

Nurturing A Nascent Colorado Biotech Hub

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By Matthew Pillar, Editor, BioProcess Online

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If Jennifer Jones Paton argued the word “nascent” in the headline of this article, she’d have a point. Since 2016, Jones Paton has led the Colorado BioScience Association (CBSA), first as VP and, since 2018, as president and CEO. Her organization deserves much of the credit for the increase in cash, capital, and talent that’s bloomed throughout the state during her tenure. It’s true, the biotech scene in Colorado isn’t “just coming into existence,” per the first half of nascent’s definition. In each of the past three years, life sciences firms there have raised more than $1 billion.

The industry is certainly, however, “displaying signs of its future potential,” per the second half of the definition. Consider that from 2014 to 2016, life sciences startups in the eight collective Mountain States struggled to hit the half billion-dollar investment mark each year. For the past three years, Colorado alone has doubled that figure. That’s in no small part due to CBSA’s initiatives. Its Rocky Mountain Life Sciences Investor + Partnering Conferences showcase the region’s life sciences potential for investors, as does its partnership with the Rockies Venture Club. Its fundraising facilitation on behalf of member firms, state- and federal-level lobbying for the greater industry, and persistent advocacy of Colorado as a great place to work, live, and play have made measurable impacts. Today, the state boasts 720 life sciences companies, representing a workforce of 30,000 with $2.8 billion in earning power. Colorado is clearly leading the Mountain States’ charge. The CBSA is playing a lead role in the effort.

MAINTAINING THE ECOSYSTEM REQUIRES SUSTAINABLE SKILL

As the coalescence of the Colorado biotech community became tangible over the past decade, its industry leaders grew increasingly concerned about an equally difficult and even more time-intensive challenge: the cultivation and sustainability of a skilled workforce to support life sciences growth in the state. “Recognizing the concern, CBSA formed an Education Committee, whose members planned training programs and discussed actions the Association could take to meet the industry’s specific current and future skill requirements,” explains Jones Paton. “That committee served as the de facto forum for discussion on meeting the talent needs to support the state’s life sciences growth.” In 2014, those discussions ultimately led the CBSA board to a bold and proactive decision. The Association would spin up a 501(c)(3) organization, dubbed the Colorado Bioscience Institute (CBSI), to focus exclusively on training, education, and workforce development.

To lead the Institute’s efforts, the CBSA tapped Meg John, a career educator with a STEM specialty, who now serves as VP of the Institute. John established some pioneering programs that are already paying dividends for the CBSA member community. One of the unique aspects of these programs is their focus on early education. “We recognized that to grow our local workforce, and equally important, keep that talent here in the state, we need new programs to foster it, and those programs had to begin at the K-12 level,” says Jones Paton.

In 2014, John spearheaded an initiative called the STEM Research Experience for Teachers (RET). The program provides sixth-through 12th-grade teachers real-world experience working shoulder-to-shoulder with scientists at between 10 and 12 participating Colorado biotech companies and empowers them to translate that experience and knowledge into the classroom. Over the course of four weeks during the summer, participating teachers spend 130 hours with an innovative STEM company working on real-world projects and more than 30 hours in professional development study. “Teachers reach 100 to 150 students every school year, so the impact of the program has far-reaching consequences,” explains John. “Collaborative partnerships between teachers, industry leaders, and the local university research community help us increase student engagement and interest in STEM topics and careers.” Between 10 and 15 teachers in the Denver, Jefferson County, and other public school systems participate in the program annually, supported by financial contributions from companies and organizations including AstraZeneca, Rose Community Foundation, AlloSource, TOLMAR, Inc., and the city of Westminster.

“These programs are already creating positive outcomes in morale and retention for the participating organizations and great mentorship for students pursuing careers in biotech.”

Jennifer Jones Paton, President and CEO, Colorado BioScience Association

LONG-TERM, HIGH-YIELD INVESTMENT IN BIOTECH TALENT

To further address its membership’s concerns about cultivating a sustainable talent pool, CBSA and CBSI were also instrumental in the launch of Colorado’s first Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) program designed specifically for biotech.

Inspired by an IBM-sponsored P-TECH program for IT career readiness already underway in the St. Vrain Valley School District that serves the greater Boulder community, Jones Paton and John convened a round-table of Colorado life sciences industry HR professionals — backed by their companies’ corporate leadership — to build a framework and shore up support for the program. Under CBSI’s guidance, the program won the support of local community colleges before inviting the involvement of high-level administrators from K-12 school districts that were seeking to create early pathways to life sciences careers. The St. Vrain Valley School District, having proven the success of the P-TECH model in the tech industry, was chosen as the biotech program’s inaugural participant.

The P-TECH program at St. Vrain creates an opportunity for participating students to engage in coursework — beginning in ninth grade — that can earn them both a high school diploma and an associate degree in biochemistry upon graduating their senior year of high school. Each of the first two cohorts of enrollees comprised between 30 and 35 students. The program is underwritten by local biotechs Agilent Technologies, Avexis, and Tolmar and supported by mentorship from 35 volunteer life sciences professionals who provide guidance in both the classroom and the lab. Aims Community College is the program’s post-secondary partner.

Both the STEM RET and P-TECH programs are designed to promote diversity in the workforce and provide opportunities for first-generation college graduates. The institute seeks to provide participating STEM RET opportunities to teachers from underserved schools, and John says current P-TECH program participants are 58 percent female, 40 percent of them are first-generation college coursework students, and more than half are non-white. “We recognize that the big payoff of these new programs — an influx of qualified talent for biotechs and great career opportunities for new graduates — is a few years off,” says Jones Paton. “But these programs are already creating positive outcomes in morale and retention for the participating organizations and great mentorship for students pursuing careers in biotech.”

ENGAGING ACADEMIA AND THE BIOTECH C-SUITE

In addition to the aforementioned Colorado State Board of Education-sanctioned programs, CBSA and the Institute run a series of “Life Science Nights,” which play host to more than 200 students from Colorado’s many higher education institutions. There, students are offered table-style meetings with potential employers. The CBSA also facilitates regularly scheduled meetings with those higher-ed institutions and their tech-transfer departments to help them shape curricula that align with real-world employment needs.

Additionally, the Association hosts an annual BioBoot Camp program for startup or early-stage life sciences companies, entrepreneurs, and researchers considering the establishment of an entity in the life sciences sector. That initiative offers specific programming on licensing strategies, company formation, IP protection, building a management team, company valuation, and investor strategy.

CBSI also works diligently to meet the education and training needs of established biotech firms. Its Executive Leadership, Foundations of Leadership, and Workforce Training programs offer workshops for biotech professionals — from operation-side employees to the C-suite — to develop discipline-specific leadership, communication, team building, strategy execution, and growth planning skills.

The bustling biotech scene in Colorado leaves no room for doubt of a bright future. Supported by CBSA and the initiative of its CBSI, the Centennial State is a bio “bright spot” to watch.