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Degree allows scientists to experiment with business

University of Toronto graduate Ryan Macri parlayed his master of biotechnology degree into a career with Amgen Canada. ‘The program was perfect in terms of what I wanted to do next,’ he says.

J.P. Moczulski/The Globe and Mail

When Ryan Macri graduated with a biology and neuroscience double major from the University of Toronto in 2003, he knew he wanted a career in science. But he was unsure if he should get there by becoming a doctor, lawyer or academic researcher.

Then he discovered a master of biotechnology, a two-year program offered by U of T's Mississauga campus for young scientists to hone their research skills, learn the fundamentals of business and gain real-world experience in a year-long paid internship with pharmaceutical and biotech companies.

"The program was perfect in terms of what I wanted to do next," says Mr. Macri, who joined Amgen Canada Inc., after graduating from Mississauga in 2006. Ten years later, after stints in sales and marketing, clinical trials and other positions, he now is a senior product manager at the biopharmaceutical company.

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"I have landed on my feet," he says. "I know where I want to be."

The Mississauga degree is one example of growing interdisciplinary collaboration among university faculties, in partnership with industry, to equip entrepreneurial-minded scientists with business skills and prepare them for careers in sales, marketing, product development and clinical trials about which students have little information.

"It is fantastic to see them [students] light up when they discover there are all these possibilities," says U of T Mississauga chemistry professor Scott Prosser, director of the master of biotechnology program.

Industry is enthusiastic, too.

Since 2010, Amgen has accepted nine interns from the U of T program, with more than half staying on in contract positions after graduation, according to a company spokeswoman.

Clive Ward-Able, executive director of research and development at Amgen, is a medical doctor who has worked in the industry in several countries throughout his career. For a new generation of scientists, he says opportunities are unfolding in a fast-evolving sector.

"What's coming in the next 10-15 years is just going to be remarkable not only from [the perspective of] biotechnology or biopharmaceuticals or therapeutic drugs, but also for the convergence of biotechnology in the biological and digital age," he says. "The convergence of those two [factors] is going to change the way we provide health care."

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Andrew Casey, president and chief executive officer of BioteCanada, applauds the emergence of degree programs that blend science and business. "We're taking great [young] scientists and now teaching them to be entrepreneurs," he says. "That is adding a huge level of value."

The push for business-savvy scientists comes as Canada, with a biotech sector that lags other countries, looks to diversify its commodity-dependent economy. Mr. Casey's organization predicts Canada could become a top-three global player in biotechnology with added investment, expanded partnerships and a supportive regulatory environment.

For advocates, programs that integrate business and science can cultivate the growth of a home-grown sector.

"The idea, as much as anything, is to try and create a rich ecosystem for education," says Eric Brown, a Canada research chair in chemical biology at McMaster University in Hamilton and director of a new bachelor/master program in biomedical discovery and commercialization.

"We have done a bang-up job of educating biomedical scientists and preparing kids for medical school and grad school," he adds. What's missing, he says, is an understanding of other career options in science. "Biochemists have extraordinary skills in the field of pharmaceutical discovery and development and that is a connection we had never made before."

In 2014, Dr. Brown, other science colleagues and counterparts at the university's DeGroote School of Business developed a program for third- and fourth-year science students with an entrepreneurial bent, targeting a younger cohort than those seeking a graduate degree.

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In McMaster's program, undergraduates gain experience in advanced lab research while learning about business. After the bachelor degree, they can go on to a year-long master degree in the same discipline that includes a four-month unpaid industry internship.

Each fall, the bachelor program accepts about 50 students, mostly from the university's renowned life sciences faculty. Demand is such that more than 100 students are competing for a spot this September.

Madeleine Rudolph, a third-year life sciences student, enrolled in the biomedical discovery and commercialization program last September because of her interest in science and business.

"I really do like the science and I think drug discovery and pharmaceuticals are a really cool part of that," she says. A summer job marketing new condos whetted her appetite for sales. She has not ruled out applying to medical school, but now seriously contemplates working for a pharmaceutical company.

"I have that science background that people in marketing and sales would like to have," she says.

Others are also discovering careers they never imagined previously.

In 2012, Justine LeBlanc returned from the United States with a degree in biology and psychology, working at a major Canadian bank for two years. She wanted to get back to science, contemplating several different types of graduate business degrees before she read about U of T's biotechnology degree.

"It has differentiated me as an applicant," says Ms. LeBlanc, who spent a year-long internship at Roche Canada in 2015 while earning her degree. Set to graduate this spring, she has a contract position in the company's marketing department. "I am happy where I am," she says. "I am being challenged all the time."

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