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Dr. Sheldon Schuster Headshot

President's Manufacturing Institutes Are a Good Idea: Now Let's See About the Other 90 Percent

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I'll start with a confession -- although not much of one. Like most people, I get my news in snippets, usually online from several different news sites, or occasionally from a hard copy newspaper or magazine. But, the other day, when I heard a portion of President Obama's speech this week announcing new manufacturing institutes in Chicago and Detroit, I found myself searching for the text of the entire speech -- a sound bite was not enough. What got me so intrigued that I felt I needed to go right to the source for more details? My interest is not political, but practical. As the president of a graduate school in large part devoted to bridging that gap between applied research and product, I have a special interest in seeing how this type of initiative works on a fairly large scale. From an educator's perspective, my experience is that on a small scale, a partnership which involves industry, educators and innovative thinking can lead to great things.

Our school, Keck Graduate Institute, offers a niche education to graduate students who want to work in the life sciences industry. When it was established in 1997, some were skeptical of its founding premise. Critics said it represented a next step, so to speak, in the "corporatization" of education, giving biotech and pharmaceutical companies too much input into how our students would be educated and with too great an emphasis on the potential profits behind scientific research. However, in the 90s and even in the 80s, there were signs we needed to start rethinking the pipeline that ran between practical education, academic research and industry. Too many scientific researchers were (and still are in some cases) frustrated at the amount of time it took for their work to get to those it had the potential to help. At the same time, students, even those fortunate enough to have the opportunity to pursue a graduate degree, often leave school without the professional connections and complex combination of technical, professional and communications skills it takes to get a good job in the field of their choice.

Fortunately, the increasing emphasis on translational (bench to bedside) research encouraged, in part, by the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 has led to significant advances in the care patients are actually receiving. The United States today is unquestionably the world leader in medical innovation, having produced more new drugs, medical devices and diagnostic innovations over the last decade than any other country. Competition is fierce and getting fiercer and the landscape is constantly changing. There is still a lot of work to be done, particularly when it comes to equal access to quality health care.

However, over the last several decades, those of us in the life sciences have seen the successes that collaborations between universities, nonprofit organizations, industry and government can bring. The synergy that develops between these separate groups -- each with their own agendas but often with common goals -- can lead to truly innovative thinking, and the kind of widespread practical applications and societal benefits that most research scientists live for. For example, an interesting collaboration between our Institute and the Seattle-based biotech company, Alder Biopharmaceuticals, led to a new method of using a yeast, Pichia pastoris, to make fully functional whole antibodies more rapidly and cost-effectively than other technologies. The ability to make these antibodies has important applications in both pre-clinical and clinical stages of drug discovery, i.e., it helps researchers working to discover new drugs do their jobs better and faster. The discovery also helped Alder grow from from a startup company to one with more than $100 million of investment in their antibody development technology and portfolio of therapeutics.

This story, and similar ones from numerous research institutions and universities across the country, is why I'm encouraged by the President's initiative on manufacturing innovation institutes. I've seen the successes firsthand, measured not only in the number of new therapies and technologies coming into the marketplace, but also in the practical advantage that students gain when they are educated in an entrepreneurial environment -- one which helps them develop the professional skills, contacts and, above all, confidence needed to land and keep a good job these days.

Silicon Valley entrepreneur and the self-proclaimed "former chief evangelist" at Apple Guy Kawasaki once said, "A good idea is about ten percent and implementation and hard work, and luck is 90 percent." When it comes to the manufacturing initiative, I believe the good idea is there, and the ability of Americans to work hard has never been in doubt. So it all comes down to the implementation--and, of course, a little luck never hurts.