Program aims to teach scientists to talk business

University launched Master's in Biotechnology Enterprise and Entrepreneurship program in January 2012

When Lynn Johnson Langer, a faculty member in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences' Advanced Academic Programs, began her career as a microbiologist at the National Institutes of Health, one of the first things that struck her was the dichotomy between business and science.

"Businesspeople and scientists didn't speak each other's language," Langer says. "They didn't always respect each other."

When she transitioned out of NIH and into the business world, she further saw just how far apart the two worlds were, and how seldom the two seemed able to "play nicely in the sandbox."

"This degree is focused on what people need to do and know to create and sustain biotech businesses," Langer says. "That piece about how to be able to grow and keep it going is key."

Those early experiences were part of the impetus behind Langer's drive to establish Johns Hopkins' Master's in Biotechnology Enterprise and Entrepreneurship program. She was also driven by a startling statistic: 95 percent of biopharmaceutical companies fail.

The program, which can be completed entirely online or through a combination of online and on-site courses at the university's Montgomery County Campus, was launched in January. And not only did already enrolled students immediately start transitioning from other biotechnology programs, but a new type of student was drawn to the offering. The typical MS in Biotechnology students are in their late 20s or early 30s, working in a lab and looking to grow their careers. Many of the students in the new degree program are older, already have MDs, PhDs, or other terminal degrees, and are specifically interested in a Johns Hopkins education that will help them become successful entrepreneurs.

So what's unique about the program?

"This degree is focused on what people need to do and know to create and sustain biotech businesses," Langer says. "That piece about how to be able to grow and keep it going is key."

It's also what makes the program stand out from others, a fact that Langer discovered when the Montgomery County Campus this spring hosted the first annual Bioentrepreneurship Education Conference. The gathering drew representatives from as far away as South Africa and Australia, as well as from institutions around the U.S., including Wharton, Stanford, and the University of Colorado.

"We were the only program at that conference that discussed how to sustain a biotechnology business," she says.

In addition to checking out what other academic programs are doing, Langer ensures that hers is sharing the right information by actively seeking the advice of those working in the industry. During the summer, she convened a panel of industry leaders to advise her on the program's finance course.

"We needed to understand what they saw as the necessary tools and skills to create, sustain, and grow a business," she says. "What we got out of it was that the students coming out of our program need to understand the vocabulary of finance, and understand the basics of how the finances work or function, but they don't need to be experts. That's why you hire a CFO."

Another key selling point for the program, which came from the industry-leaders panel, is the diversity of career paths that its graduates could pursue. The panelists pointed out that the program would be beneficial not just to those looking to start new companies but also to those wanting to work at venture capital firms or on the mergers and acquisitions or operations sides of a biotech business.

Langer says that she sees the scientist entrepreneur as the key demographic. More than half of today's new biotech firms have been started by scientists. And many of these scientists have a great idea but no training on how to run a business. Langer wants to fix that.

"I remember being an organizational development consultant for biotechs in crisis, looking at the two sides—business and science—and thinking, If they just understood each other better," she says.

"These brilliant scientists have to learn that to be successful, they can't let their egos get in the way," she adds. "They need to learn to step back and let others offer them guidance and advice. And that's just what we're teaching them."