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February 17, 2020

Biopharma education podcast

By Conor McKechnie and Dodi Axelson

School’s never out: Educating the next gen biopharma talents

Education matters for sure. But what is special about biopharmaceutical education? And what does the future hold? Dodi and Conor are about to find out. Their guides in this episode are Killian O’Driscoll at NIBRT, Ireland, and Ron Kander at Thomas Jefferson University, US.


DODI: Happy new year. Happy new decade.

CONOR: Ah, yeah. Happy new year. 2020.

DODI: Holy moly, that just seems so far away.

CONOR: Who would have thought that we'd make it, I remember when 2001 was in the future.

DODI: Ah, yeah, exactly how HAL was going to take over, but let us carry on where we left off from 2019, way back then, in our Discovery Matters episode. I think we should concentrate on, you know, what helps us understand life science. And that's a subject that I think is important every day in our topsy-turvy world.

CONOR: So, something that helps us understand. Is it Google™? Is it a…

DODI: Keep guessing!

CONOR: A chair! A towel! Wikipedia!

DODI: No, it's totally easy and it suits you Conor, cause you like to say every day is a school day. So, what is it?

CONOR: School! Education!

DODI: It's education. That is what matters on today's episode.

CONOR: You got it. Let's do this.

DODI: All right. I went looking for what is special about education in life sciences, specifically within biotechnology, which we are obviously talking about every time we get together for an episode of Discovery Matters. And so for this search, we started at the National Institute for Bioprocessing Research and Training, something that is called NIBRT for short, located in good old Dublin.

KILLIAN O'DRISCOLL: Hello, my name is Killian O'Driscoll and I am the director of projects at the National Institute for Bioprocessing Research and Training, more commonly known as NIBRT. And we are based here in Dublin, in Ireland.

CONOR: So, what is NIBRT exactly and how did it get started?

KO: So, the original concept for NIBRT goes back to the early 2000s. And really what the catalyst for establishing NIBRT was, is that Ireland has a very long history of pharmaceutical manufacturing really from the 1950s, 1960s onwards. But around the 2000s we started to hear from key clients that the types of molecules that they were manufacturing was beginning to change. While there was still a very strong emphasis on small molecules, that really a very significant growth area was in the large molecule or biologics area. And that in order for Ireland to be an attractive place for companies to establish large-scale biopharmaceutical manufacturing facilities, really what was needed was to make sure that we had the talent and the workforce of engineers, scientists, quality folks, operators, technicians who were very comfortable in manufacturing of large-scale biologics.

CONOR: Okay, so walk me around the training facility at NIBRT. What does it look like for those of us listening?

DODI: Well, as Killian can tell you, it is an impressive site.

KO: This was the first thing they agreed to is our foyer and our exhibition space at which we hold many conference and vendors. On the left-hand side you see our training rooms where we train over 4500 people per year, on the right-hand side on our grand floor that is where our research laboratories are located. Then as you move up the stairs onto our first floor, on the left-hand side you see the offices and on the right-hand side is really the heart of the facility. That's where our pilot plant facility is and that's where our, our upstream pilot plant is. It's both stainless steel and single-use and our downstream facility services.

CONOR: Sounds like they've got all the toys. It's really well equipped at least.

DODI: Yeah, I'd say NIBRT is the gold standard for other educational places for biopharma manufacturing.

KO: Thank you for that compliment.

DODI: I first read about NIBRT because I happened upon an article that came from the European Union and was talking about something, a program funded by the EU and the Irish Government.

KO: And it's called the springboard+ program. But what springboard+ was originally designed to do was to help people from other sectors whose industries were consolidating. So, these were people who had found themselves (without jobs) through no fault of their own. Perhaps they'd worked in the construction sector. And as that consolidated, they were made redundant and they were looking for new opportunities. So, each year we would train close to 400 people from other sectors who wished to work within, within biopharma. So they might come, without a science background, without an engineering background, and we would take those folks, work very closely with them, help develop their competence, their confidence, introduced them then to our biopharma clients and as I mentioned, each year we trained around 400 of them and the very significant majority of our springboard+ clients would go on to have very successful career opportunities within these blue-chip biopharma companies.

CONOR: So it's never too late. You're never too old to learn a new skill and it's never too late to become a scientist.

DODI: Absolutely not. But the main reason I got ahold of Killian was to talk about something called biopharma 4.0. Sounds super trendy. Right? And we talked about how that could change the future of education in biopharmaceuticals.

CONOR: Okay.

DODI: Do you remember the film Taken?

CONOR: I do. And I have a very particular set of skills.

DODI: Yes, I'm sure you do.

AUDIO: I don't know who you are. I don't know what you want. If you're looking for a ransom, I can tell you I don't have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills.

DODI: So, I kept thinking of that quote when I was talking to Killian. Twenty years ago, you know, scientists had used a very specific set of skills as Liam Neeson would say. And now with the speed of science they have to learn something completely different and they have to keep learning and keep up. Actually, like we do within marketing. Like as soon as you know something, it's old knowledge.

CONOR: So, it's like old dogs, new tricks, continual learning all the time.

DODI: All the time.

CONOR: Every day is a…

DODI: Learning day.

CONOR: No, no. Every day…

DODI: School day!

CONOR: Oh my god, Dodi! You’ve got to get it right.

DODI: Alright, alright, alright, close enough! All right, so that's, this is where biopharma 4.0 comes in. Rather than, say, a traditional house of education, like college or university.

KO: It can be a challenge for universities to have the capability to be able to deliver the core skills in biopharma manufacturing because it is such a hands-on, practical, competency-based skill set that's required. So, it is hard to, to learn about aseptic behaviors. It is hard to learn about protein purification or cell culture really without getting that hands-on practical experience. And that's quite an expensive mode of training to deliver. So, there's some obstacles there to deliver that to large scale undergraduate courses for example. So that's why we're very pleased here in NIBRT that we have a training facility that we can make that available to all the universities, and the Institute of Technology here in Ireland, and indeed, internationally.

Certainly, over the last number of years, we've started to hear very strongly about industry 4.0, which is essentially the impact of digitalization on manufacturing. Some other manufacturing sectors, such as the automobile industry, the aeronautical industry, have moved quite considerably in this direction, but biopharma and the pharmaceutical industry in general hasn't moved. And again, for some very genuine reasons that’s the highly regulated nature of our industry. But there's no doubt that the impact of 4.0 technologies is attracting a lot of attention. It can be a challenge to implement within a biopharma manufacturing facility. So, we are very lucky to have this wonderful opportunity to develop some of these technologies and try them here within NIBRT and to develop use cases for what technologies work, what technology is creating efficiencies, and what have meaningful impact on biopharma manufacturing.

KO: So Killian said something really interesting back there. He compared biopharmaceuticals with the automotive industry. Does he mean that, with this 4.0 thinking and training, that biopharmaceutical manufacturing in the future is going to be completely automated and this new set of skills that scientists need are going to be programming and robots and so on, rather than what they do today? I mean how, how far can this go?

DODI: I know, I know. It's kind of easy to run away with the idea of dystopia or go super far into science fiction, but Killian told us it's kind of a hybrid.

KO: I don't think anything would ever replace the core analytical skills and the problem-solving skills of a top-quality scientists or a top-quality engineer. But certainly, some of the 4.0 technologies can certainly help with that. So, at the core of 4.0 what we're seeing is big data and essentially the data analytics. And there's a number of steps within that because biopharma manufacturing facilities generate an awful lot of data from disparate systems. So, trying to align that and trying to standardize your data and aggregate your data and collect it is probably, is a very significant challenge. But once you've collected that data, then assessing that data, doing trend analysis and finding some meaningful scientific, or business information that's actionable from that, that is the, I suppose, the Holy Grail that everybody is trying to pursue.

But certainly what we're seeing is some new technologies such as increased use of automation, increase use of robotics can certainly help with the more, what we might call, routine tasks that perhaps some of our scientists and engineers are currently performing to help them focus more on value added tasks.

DODI: Okay, let's say goodbye now to Killian and Dublin.

KO: Bye, bye guys. Bye.

DODI: And let's look deeper into something he mentioned back there, universities and how they are approaching this question about the future of education. So, let's hop over that big Atlantic Ocean and visit Pennsylvania.

RON KANDER: Hi, I'm Ron Kander. I have two roles at Jefferson. I'm Dean of the Kanbar College of Design, Engineering and Commerce, which has the design, engineering and business degrees. And I'm also associate provost for applied research.

CONOR: Okay. I'm sorry. I'm sure he's really bored of this, but is Ron true to his name?

DODI: We always, we love a good pun…

CONOR: We do.

DODI: …on this podcast.

RK: Yes, definitely, Kander. Absolutely.

DODI: It's actually not spelled like C-A-N-D-O-R.

RK: K-A-N-D-E-R.

DODI: So Ron is deep into educating the current generation and the next generation in the ways of making future therapeutics.

RK: So, our job is really to educate people for the next set of jobs. And we place students in industry at a rate of 96%. So, our job really is to prepare the next workforce. And in this project specifically, we're really focusing on the entire workforce development continuum. So, we're trying to go backwards and do STEM education and STEM enrichment for the K-12 system in the region. We also have partnerships with the community colleges around us on this project so that we can add supplemental curriculum to their associate degrees. So, people would come out being ready for work.

And then also our own undergraduate and graduate degree programs, which range from engineering to life sciences to biotechnology that we can add content on biopharmaceutical processing to prepare them for industry. And then most importantly, we have the workforce development component of this. That is the training and retraining of current working professionals. Because you know, we are, obviously things change so fast now that we're in a lifelong learning mode and people have to continue education for their whole career. So, this part is bringing professionals back for retraining.

CONOR: So candidly, what does Ron see as the demands on a person entering or staying in the biopharmaceutical workforce today?

DODI: Well, for Ron, it all comes down to one statistic.

RK: Half of the drugs that are in the R&D pipeline are biologics. When I talk to the professionals in the industry, the single biggest risk to the supply chain is trained people. So, individuals’ ability to continue learning is now more important than what they know at any given point in time. So, the whole hiring process is changing because you don't hire a person for what they know anymore. You hire them for what they can do and what they will be able to learn to do as you move forward. So, it's really interesting. It's, it's changed completely. That education is no longer about information. It's about experiences because the information now is very easy to find. So, if you just need a fact, you're not going to pay 40 000 dollars to go to a university to learn a fact. You can look it up on Google. Right? So, what is it about the experience that differentiates you from other employees?

CONOR: Okay, so we know that, but how does Ron then as the Dean of a university deal with that?

RK: I tell my faculty that their job is to supply education experiences and employment, the three Es, for their students. But that's not what we measure. We measure as a university the economics, we measure the enrolment, and we measure the esteem.

CONOR: So, three completely different Es now?

DODI: Different Es. So, my job as Dean is to translate between those six Es. So, my faculty are providing the actual services. My job is to then measure, have metrics that show that we are doing those in such a way that we meet those other three Es. And that's really where education is going in the 21st century now is because if you only focus on the services you provide to a student, you don't, society won't understand the value proposition of why a university exists. And in fact, you see that all over the place, right? The discussions about the value of education. It's not about the cost of education, it's about the value of education. And if you use, and again, I'll use that number, if you spend 40 000 dollars a year for four years to get a bachelor's degree, that number alone is irrelevant. It's what's that compared to the value that you create for yourself as an individual in terms of you as a product, right? So, it's no different than the supply chain of a product, right? As you run a product through a supply chain, it increases in value. As you run an individual through a university, you're increasing their value to society. If that value increase is bigger than the cost of tuition, you win!

DODI: And listening to all of this, there was something at the back of my head that was kind of going scratchy, scratchy, scratchy.

CONOR: Don't tell me, about the students.

DODI: Exactly. About the students.

CONOR: And you're worried about kids today and how, without generalizing too much and sounding as old as we are, it seems that so many of them just want to be YouTube stars and make the million dollars when they're 19.

DODI: And I mean, I don’t even need to participate in this conversation. You've got it all. That's exactly, that's exactly what I'm thinking. So, I asked Ron, you know, how does he talk to those kids. Except he kind of shut me down when I asked him about this and instead he showed me the hope that I'd been looking for throughout these discussions about education.

RK: See, I disagree with that premise. If I look at the students that I have in my college, they are way more savvy in understanding how they're going to bring value to society than any of us realize. And I, I've said this many times, if you only look at what's on TV or what's in the news, you feel like the world's going to go to hell. You know. When you work on a campus and I get to be around the students that I'm around, if these are the people running the world when I'm 95, I'm good. Cause they get it, they completely get it. And in fact, they get it better than I did when I was in college. I'll be honest, when I went to college, I became an engineer, and this is embarrassing to say, because they made the most money, right? I mean I didn't think about the impact of my job on society back then. You know, when you're an 18-year-old guy, let's face it.

So, but now these 18- to 22-year-old kids come in and they're, they want to know how they're going to change the world. What are they going to do to make the world better? And they see this field, the bioprocessing field, the biologics. I was on the bus today on the way up here with a, a millennial, and he said his father died of cancer and his father was in a biologics trial in California and it extended his life by four to six months. And he said he could never give back enough to the industry who gave him his dad for an extra four to six months. And he doesn't care how much money he makes. He's interested in what he could, how could he do that for somebody else? So, and that is not uncommon. That’s…These kids get it.

CONOR: Well, so actually maybe we're just falling into that trap…

DODI: Of being old?

CONOR: …that older generations fall into, which is you look back and you say, well, nothing was the way it used to be when I was a little one.

DODI: Yeah. When we walked a mile in the snow to school.

CONOR: Exactly. And we lived in a hole in the middle of the road and we had coal for breakfast.

DODI: That's right!

CONOR: Um yeah. So maybe we shouldn't worry so much. If Ron's right, the next generation is actually getting ready to save the world.

DODI: Here's to hoping.

CONOR: I love that!

DODI: That's it for this episode of Discovery Matters. We'll see you in two weeks.

CONOR: Goodbye.

DODI: Our executive producer is Andrea Kilin. Discovery matters is produced in collaboration with Soundtelling. Production and music by Thomas Henley. Hey, give us a rating on your podcast app while you're there. We'd love to hear what you think.

CONOR: Press the buttons with stars on it. Thanks very much.

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