Managing and Marketing the Future with an MBA

MBA programs in biotechnology are generating more and more interest, as those in the scientific fields want to build out their business skills

After Crystal Ruff obtained her Ph.D. in neuroscience, she found a job working in a research lab in Toronto, where she helped a well-known spinal surgeon made a breakthrough discovery: it's possible to use stem cells to greatly improve brain function in patients with cerebral palsy.

"We were able to show that these stem cells, when we transplanted them in, could functionally double the brain's signal," says Ruff, who also holds undergraduate degrees in biochemistry and molecular biology. "[Normally], the brain signals to the body, like a wire. With cerebral palsy, the wire is stripped of protective coding, so the signal is weaker. The stem cells will make it better though. Only about half the normal coding is needed to have totally normal function, and just even a little bit could mean the difference between being able to walk versus run."

Ruff, whose enthusiasm for biotechnological advances shines through when she describes her laboratory discoveries, says she then jumped into helping with clinical trials and liaising with drug companies to spread the news about this exciting breakthrough.

And then she realized something.

"When I looked at the senior people, there were very few that could understand both the science and the business aspects," Ruff says.

That's when Ruff decided to go to business school.

Ruff, who finished her MBA at London Business School in July, is one of a small but steady group of students with a science background who attend LBS every year. 

"Every year, we have a small number who are coming from a scientific background," says David Morris, Head of Corporate Sectors at LBS' Career Center. "They want to come learn the business skills around those fields."

Some schools like LBS attract a small number of science-oriented students to their general MBAs. Other schools offer programs specifically for students like Ruff. Johns Hopkins offers a dual MS in biotechnology and MBA, intended for students to learn biochemistry and biostatistics alongside skills in accounting, finance and negotiation. Rutgers offers a Master of Science in Biomedical Sciences and an MBA, intended to help students become directors or managers in science companies. Penn State offers students the opportunity to obtain an undergraduate science degree alongside an MBA, so business leaders can converse knowledgeably with scientists and engineers.

"You get to a point where you design something, you have a new product. and you have to get it to market. It's not that engineering schools don't do it at all, but if you get that MBA, it then adds to the skill set you have, so you understand with any kind of product: here's what you do to go from an idea to a plan to financing to going into market," says Kevin Frick, a professor at Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. "What an MBA program does is it gives you some structure around those steps."

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Frick says his program hasn't seen a groundswell of interest among biotech students, attracting far more students who are interested in healthcare, but he says that the students who do understand both business and biotech will be a sought-after asset in years to come.

"Having people who can walk the walk and talk the talk on both sides of biotech and business will be a very important group of people moving things forward," Frick says.

Ruff says her own experience backs up that assertion. For example, she says that the stem cells needed for the cerebral palsy treatment only stay fresh for one day. Someone with logistics and supply chain experience needs to figure out how to transport the cells before they spoil.

"There weren't a ton of people who were equipped with skills from both sides, to deal with that," Ruff says. "It's going to be important in the next couple of years to have people who understand both sides of the coin, going forward."

Recruiting a generation of scientists with these business skills is so essential, says Ruff, because these technologies are transforming the world we live in. She points to advances such as t-cell therapies for cancer, which take body cells that normally fight disease, and program them to target cancer and eradicate it, a treatment that worked on 25 out of 27 patients with stage-four cancer. Ruff says she also sees regenerative medicine transforming the medical sciences.

"You need an organ transplant? Let's bio-print you a new liver," Ruff says.

But none of these advances will help people as effectively if companies can't market, promote, and logistically handle these new technologies.

Although Ruff, Morris, and Frick say that students who are interested in combining business and science are not the norm, Ruff points to indications that interest in this field is on the upswing, at least at LBS. Ruff is the president of her school's Healthcare Club, a professional association for anyone interested in life sciences. This year, the club attracted applications from about 10 percent of LBS' incoming MBA students.

"A lot of those people are financiers or consultants, too, so that's crazy," Ruff says.

One of her club's initiatives is the HealthTech Challenge, a competition that kicked off this month and that invites schools from all over Europe to pitch product ideas for a 10,000 pound prize.

Morris points out that there are plenty of post-graduation opportunities for students who specialize in science and business. Morris says he sees students who want to return to the corporate side of scientific companies, students who go into healthcare or consulting, students who want to explore venture capital as it pertains to healthcare fields, and students who plan to bring design thinking capabilities to the STEM fields.

As for Ruff, even though she now has an MBA, she plans to stay in biotechnology and regenerative medicine. She says she would love to do business development for all of the exciting new technologies coming out of the biotech field. She thinks it's so important to learn how to properly promote and handle these technologies for one simple reason.

"They represent the future," Ruff says. 

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