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Review of BIO’s Pacific Rim Summit: December 10-11

Posted by Greg Mrachko December 17th, 2013 .
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Bio Pac RimDecember 10th at the Biotechnology Industry Organization Pacific Rim Summit on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy (BIO PacRim) Conference began with the morning Breakfast Plenary Session entitled Pac Rim CEO Spotlight which was moderated by Paul Zorner, a former Diversa employee and current Operating Partner of Pegasus Capital Advisors.  The panel consisted of Joel Cherry (JC) of Amyris, Lee Edwards (LE) of Virent, Kirk Haney (KH) of SG Biofuels and James Levine (JL) of Verenium (now a division of BASF).  The session began with each panelist providing a brief synopsis of some recent progress at their company and a glimpse into their strategic leadership down the road.  JC commented that their platform or strain engineering technology to generate biocatalyst proficient in the biosynthesis of a particular molecule is the “tip of the iceberg” in Amyris’ effort to deliver No Compromise® replacement molecules starting with farnesene as a drop-in transportation fuel.  KH talked about their genomic engineering platform for the rapid domestication of new crops, such as jatropha and its seed oil, involving laboratory instrumentation that didn’t exist three years ago.

Zorner facilitated the panel discussion by posing his own questions as well as some selected from audience submissions.  When asked about effective strategies for diversification, LE spoke analogously by saying that if you hook yourself up to one horse, then you end up going in the direction desired by that one horse.  JL referred to the mantra, products do not sell themselves, as far as describing his method of navigating thru the challenges of diversification especially with respect to windows of opportunity and commercialization.  KH added that his approach is built on three strengths, those being proven and protected technology, solid business development, and collaboration.

As for being questioned about their 20/20 hindsight developed over the last three years and what they would do differently, each panelist spoke about too much, too fast whether it was spending too much on too many technology trials with too many partners versus cultivating fewer and deeper working relationships, succumbing to pressure to go too fast too soon, and picking a winner too early.  A strategy from lessons learned by LE from 20/20 hindsight is identifying what he described as a healthy tension between the working parts as an indicator to stop tweaking [a technology or process] and lock-it down.

The Special Topics-Workshops section of the conference began after the Breakfast Plenary Session.  One of the four workshops was titled Blue + White = Green, which delved into exploring and mining the vast ocean worlds (Blue Biotechnology), both deep and arctic regions, to understand how survival occurs in nature that could possibly guide strategy applied in industrial biotechnology (White Biotechnology) to arrive at environmentally friendly and sustainable processes (Green Biotechnology).  The session was moderated by Kenneth Barrett, VP of Business Development at Verenium.

Jody Deming of the School of Oceanography at the University of Washington presented her research on extracellular polysaccharide substance (EPS).  The ice columns or ice cores bored from the arctic ice are essentially living laboratories that trace the evolution of survival as a function of temperature and brine concentration.  EPS formation is a stress response, for example to extreme cold or salt concentration, and its variability is key to survival.  Some roles of EPS include influence on formation of ice crystals, anchoring of microalgae within ice columns and stabilization of cell functional and structural components.

Doug Bartlett, a marine microbiologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, discussed the identification and analysis of microbiological organisms found in very deep regions of the ocean which are subject in part to extremely high hydrostatic pressure.  Bartlett was the Chief Scientist of the DeepSea Challenge Expedition of a submersible manned by Hollywood director James Cameron which dived to the deepest depth of the ocean, which is the Mariana Trench some seven miles below the surface.  The high hydrostatic pressure, zero level of sunshine and unique nutrient supply provide for diverse and distinct microbial populations.  An application in biofuels is the varying poly-unsaturated fatty acid profiles found in certain organisms as a function of sea depth plus some findings that are being applied to the development and commercialization of hydrogen production.  Bartlett also revealed the possibility for discovery of marine natural products that may provide a window for the health and biomedical field, for example the identification of the organic osmolyte scyllo inositol in a deep sea microbe.  Bartlett commented that scyllo inositol was already in clinical trials for treatment of Alzheimer’s disease which have been fast-tracked by the FDA.  Scyllo inositol is one of eight stereoisomers of the naturally occurring plant cyclic sugar alcohol inositol and its interaction with amyloid peptide may lead to the attenuation of its neurotoxic effects.

Two other presentations included that by David Weiner, VP of R&D at Verenium, and Neil Parry, Director of R&D at Unilever.  Weiner discussed the enzyme technology platform at Verenium resulting from directed evolution and screening of 2000 environmental DNA libraries extracted from one million organisms mined from all over the globe including the ocean.  Perhaps a new source of diversity for Verenium’s libraries will come from whale falls, remains of whale carcasses that was presented as an image in one of Weiner’s slides, discovered at the bottom of the Antarctic giving rise to colonization of unknown deep sea species thriving on the nutrients available from the whale remains.

One example of a commercial product offered by Verenium noted by Weiner includes Pyrolase which is a cellulase isolated from a deep sea geothermal vent with a major application being biocatalytic viscosity reduction, or guar gum breaking, involved in deep well oil recovery and hydraulic fracturing.  Weiner also offered progress on another soon-to-be commercialized lipase enzyme product engineered for use as a molecular tweezers in the selective hydrolysis of triacylglycerol-based oils during their refinement resulting in release of a certain fatty acid to create healthier edible oils.  Parry presented Unilever’s application of ice structuring proteins isolated from Icelandic flounder in the production of improved quality ice cream.  Unilever is also involved in anti-biofilm technology which acts by interrupting the mechanism of quorum sensing in a non-biocidal fashion which has advantages in that it will not result in reduced effectiveness upon development of bacterial resistance.

One afternoon breakout session was Renewable Chemical Platforms: Processes Leading to Commercialization.  It featured Atul Thakrar from Segetis who spoke about levulinic acid and its advantage of being a C5 molecule with oxygen molecules built-in by nature.  Thakrar emphasized the importance of having a capital-lite process and an investor appetite with a long-term horizon as key success factors to commercialization.  Other important factors spelled out by Thakrar that need to be identified as part of successful commercialization included a need for change, an interest for change, and importance to the end-userMarcel Lubben of DSM listed five must-haves for commercialization which were 1) select a winning feedstock, 2) being truly technology agnostic, 3) funding matched with business model, 4) partnership/alliances forged with key players/technology, and 5) derisk derisk derisk.  All the panelists agreed that the renewable chemicals business needs to rapidly get to the stage of commercialization when there is no longer talk about or celebration of plant start-ups and instead move-on to press releases about improved production or reduced cost like they do in the petroleum world, which stemmed from a closing comment made by Susan Hager, SVP Corporate Communications and Government Affairs of Myriant, who had given a presentation on Myriant’s build-own-operate business model for production of C3 – C6 target molecules including their flagship commercial product bio-succinic acid.

Wednesday December 11th was the last day of the conference and one Breakout Session was titled Innovation in Renewable Chemical Platforms (IRCP) which was moderated by Peter Keeling, Innovation Director of the Center for Biorenewable Chemicals (CBiRC) at Iowa State University.  Karl Sanford of DuPont spoke about the greening of DuPont, a task which starts by determining how a petrochemical-derived product can be made from a renewable feedstock.  Sanford stressed that delivering sustainable solutions in the greening process hinges on science and collaboration as evident from projects involving BP, Danisco and Genencor.  Key imperatives for biofuels growth presented by Sanford included use of nonfood feedstock such as their Corn Stover Harvest Collection Program initiated as part of their Cellulosic Ethanol Facility in Nevada, Iowa, drop-in and higher energy fuels such as biobutanol from their ButaMax joint venture with BP, and Early Adopters Group to rapidly launch commercial production which involves the strategy of retro-fitting existing infrastructure.

Another presenter Wednesday morning was Jamie Bacher, Founder and CEO of Pareto Biotechnologies.  The technology platform at Pareto is based on a decade or so of research by Joseph Noel of the Salk Institute.  Noel is also a founder of Pareto, and earlier founded Allylix.  Pareto’s core technology out of the Noel lab is based on the chemical reaction catalyzed by the enzyme polyketide synthase (PKS), from which the near term goal will be production of designer molecules for the cosmetics, flavors and fragrances industry.  PKS catalyzes three reactions at one active site which essentially provides three points of entry for the design of molecules.  The first point of entry is the PKS substrate which can be an alternative or non-natural substrate and thus may require some engineering of the active site for substrate specificity and or catalytic efficiency.  The second point of entry is the second reaction and its control which is iterative polyketide elongation.  The third point of entry is the third reaction which is cyclization and the control of its regiospecificity which seems programmable by protein engineering to alter active site surface chemistry and or geometrical structure.  A fourth point of entry is to build-in chemical handles of organic reactive functionality to exploit after the PKS reaction which was referred to as post-fermentative chemistry.  Pareto has just received a $350,000 grant from the San Francisco-based Thiel Foundation’s Breakout Labs.

Another speaker in the IRCP breakout session was Jeff Fornero of Glucan Biorenewables.  GlucanBio was spun out from CBiRC in 2012 and also involves technology developed by Prof James Dumesic at the University of Wisconsin-Madison which is a partner institution of CBiRC.  GlucanBio has licensed technology that represents a game-changing process for the production of furfural, an estimated $3 billion global market.  The major game-changing component of the process is the change from an aqueous-based reactor system to an organic solvent-based system by application of gamma-valerolactone (GVL).  The process has passed the test using pure glucose and xylose with the next phase of proof-of-concept being to use a lignocellulosic feedstock such as corn stover as the source of C5 and C6 sugar for conversion by dehydration.  The process consists of a thermal reactor containing GVL, mineral acid and biomass.  Furfural is produced from the hemicellulose fraction while levulinic acid (LA) is produced from the cellulose fraction.  Furfural can be distilled from the final product mix or it can be catalytically converted in the mixed product stream to LA which in turn can be converted to GVL.  A portion of the GVL is recycled back to the reactor and the rest can be used as a chemical intermediate to produce gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and chemicals.  The GVL system offers several advantages including 1) simultaneous conversion of cellulose and hemicellulose, 2) elimination of pre-treatment and extraction/separation steps thus reducing capital expenditure, 3) effective solubilization of the biomass including the lignin and degradation components thus eliminating problematic reactor issues from solids accumulation, 4) optimization of furfural yield by reduction of degradation rates, 5) increased rate of cellulose conversion to LA, and 6) miscibility with water which permits use of wet biomass.  At the end of the presentation, Fornero disclosed that GlucanBio has entered into a joint development agreement with Chevron-Phillips which is one of CBiRC’s Industry Members.

 

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Microbiome: The Next Big Biotech Bubble?

Posted by Claire Weston December 16th, 2013 .
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141087-050-24850517The Microbiome/Microbiota R&D Business Collaboration Forum kicked off in San Diego in October bringing together over 100 scientists and business executives from all over the globe.  This was a first-in-class research-business hybrid conference, stimulated in part by the completion of the Human Microbiome Project in June 2012 that published a rich source of sequencing data in the public domain.

It is estimated that there are at least 10,000 microbial species including bacteria, fungi and viruses residing in and on the human body, encoding millions of genes.  We have a limited understanding of the role that these species play in human health and disease, but this is a rapidly expanding field as researchers from both academia and industry are beginning to appreciate the complexity and influence microbes have on our health.  Recent advances have demonstrated a role for the microbiome in many diseases including Type-1 Diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s, asthma, colon cancer, obesity and more.  Discussions at the conference suggest that this list is just the tip of the iceberg, and research and business opportunities for developing therapeutics and diagnostics that modulate and test the microbial population are huge.

The conference was attended by academics and biotech/pharma companies from around the globe.  One such company taking advantage of this emerging field is OmniBiome, a San Diego-based life sciences company that is developing innovative CLIA-certified lab services, medical devices, drug-device combinations, vaccines and Rx-Ab therapies to ensure full- term and healthy pregnancies.  The company is focusing on recent studies suggesting that the health and balance of the woman’s microbiome can be linked to pregnancy outcomes.  Another Southern Californian company, Ritter Pharmaceuticals, is investigating the utilization of colonic adaption to improve gut health in a variety of diseases including lactose intolerance.  Andrew Ritter, the founder and CEO, suffers from lactose intolerance and has now become a leading expert in the field.  In addition to small start-ups, large pharma are also recognizing the importance of this emerging field.  For example Dr. Celia Briscoe, a pharmacologist at Janssen in San Diego, gave a presentation describing their interest in the microbiome and metabolic disease.

In general, healthy people have a greater microbiome diversity than those who are less healthy.  The widespread use of antibiotics within our society was therefore highlighted as a problem due to their effect of decreasing healthy microbial diversity within our bodies.  Following antibiotic treatment the microbiome doesn’t return quickly to normal, if at all.  This has lead to the concept of fecal biobanking whereby a patient can have a sample of their intestinal microbiome isolated prior to antibiotic treatment, and then undergo re-colonization once treatment is complete.  Companies such as Affinium Pharmaceuticals are also trying to address this problem by developing targeted antibiotics that potentially have less effect on the broader microbiome.  Affinium’s anti-Staphylococcal antibiotic is one example of this, and is currently in development with an open IND.  Victor Nizet from UCSD also discussed the importance of antibiotics and described how their use in infants can increase the chance of asthma and obesity.  As researchers gain a clearer understanding of the role of the microbiome in health it is likely that the widespread use of broad spectrum antibiotics will become less appealing to the medical community.

The second Microbiome R&D Business Collaboration Forum is scheduled for April 2014 in London, UK.  More information about the event can be found on the website: http://www.globalengage.co.uk/microbiota.html

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New San Diego Biotechnology Directory: Snapshot of 400+ Life Science Companies and Organizations

Posted by Mary Canady October 28th, 2013 .
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Since the SDBN’s founding in 2008, we’ve maintained the most complete and accessible local directory of companies to help connect professionals in the region. We’ve recently updated the directory with more information and features. Check out the interactive infographic below and scroll down to learn about how to use the directory and our future plans.

For this update, we’ve added information such as physical address, phone number, website link, category (e.g., Therapeutics, Research Products), year founded, type of organization (e.g., Privately Held, Public Company). We obtained the data through information publicly available on the web, such as company websites and LinkedIn. We included only companies directly involved with life science research, services, or products and did not include consultants (this may be available soon). Each company will now have an individual listing page, which they’ll be able to update soon. If the information we’ve provided is wrong or incomplete, simply contact us and we’ll take care of it. In addition, you’re now able to do advanced searches such as this one to see which local biotech organizations are public and headquartered in California or which Therapeutics companies with a size of 1-10 people were founded in 2008.

Insights

After closely watching the local industry for 5 years, a few of the facts were surprising, a few were as expected. The “footprint” for our region is that most of the companies are small, with 256 of the 408 companies being fewer than 50 employees. The trend for smaller, sometimes virtual, companies forming is well known, with the number of very small companies (1-10) increasing, with 90% of the new companies in 2013 formed so far being in this range. We were able to find a physical address for all but a handful of the entries, and often used this as a criteria for including a company. We were a bit surprised that a majority, 55% of the companies were in the zip code 92121, but companies span from the US-Mexico border to Temecula.

We were surprised to find that there are 34 public life science companies headquartered in San Diego. Indeed, with the acquisition of Life Technologies, Amylin, and others over the past few years, this number is encouraging. The size of these companies ranges from 1-10 to 1001-5000, and is dominated by Therapeutics and Medical Device companies, the latter we don’t often think of being prevalent in the region.

Using the Directory

Currently, you can browse the categories, search for the name of a company, or perform an advanced search to find companies that meet certain criteria. The directory can be used for job searches, business development, local sourcing of projects, or informational purposes. There have been many reports on the ranking of biotech hubs, directories such as these help to put regions in perspective. In the future, we plan to add many features such as descriptions, links to social media, and media. By allowing companies to maintain their listings, we also hope that this “crowd sourced” information will be kept more up to date. Basic listings will be free, but you’ll be able to pay for premium listings which will be more fully featured. We envision the directory as a place where companies will be more visible and showcase their products, job openings, and news. If you have an idea for the directory, would like us to do an analysis, or want to claim your company listing, contact us.

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Careers Outside of Academia: Summary of SDBN’s August 26th 2013 Event

Posted by DeeAnn Visk September 26th, 2013 .
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Are you a scientist with an advanced degree, considering careers outside of academia?  The San Diego Biotechnology Network addressed that question with an August 26th event at the Green Flash Brewery in Mira Mesa.  Much networking occurred before and after the formal presentations.  The food was great and the event was well-attended.

Hugo Villar, of UCSD Extension, introduced us to the coursework offered by UCSD Extension, who also sponsored the evening. Hugo pointed out that we go through many career transitions throughout life.  Many of us initially think of work outside of academia as drug discovery.  Positions in drug discovery also include regulatory affairs.  He advocates looking at your skills and what you like to do.

Business development, project management, policy, political science, legal, and intellectual property are just a few of the types of jobs that are out there.

One valuable skill is knowing how to explain science to a lay person—the ability to make very complex ideas simple to understand.

As a professional teacher there are other options out there other than tenure track research.  Also consider non-research universities, community colleges, and secondary education as viable career choices.

Biofuels are presently experiencing rapid growth. Sapphire is a local company that fits into this category.

Small molecules are a promising area of drug development.  The advent of personalized medicine is another hot area with plenty of growth potential.  Especially in San Diego the intersection of medical devices and mobile medicine are a hotbed of innovation.

If you find yourself mathematically inclined consider data analysis, data mining, and biomedical informatics.

The real question to address:  what am I good at, what do I know, how can I adapt this to a job?  What can you contribute to a non-industrial environment?

What are your skills?  PhD’s often neglect to detail one of the things they excel at: dogged pursuit of getting something to work.  They also have a lot of ways of looking at problems.

Raymond Price is presently the Director of Business Development for Bioseek.  Previously he founded the Prices Write. He spoke about writing as an alternate career for scientist.

Using the Venn diagram on slide 5 of the presentation, Ray analyzes the factors that come together to make an ideal career.  Your enthusiasm needs to be tempered by your expertise.  Then there are always external factors beyond your control. Using myself as an example, I value being able to communicate, assisting others in finding a job, and producing information on the web.  My expertise is in molecular biology and I can explain complex subjects to a general audience.  Externally, I have been unwilling to relocate from San Diego and cannot find a job in industry.

If, like me, you find that writing is in the center of Venn diagram, then great!  You’ve found your ideal career.  Even if you are not sure that writing is what you want to do, being a good writer will benefit you no matter what you choose to do.

To develop your writing skills, Ray recommends beginning by working as a subcontractor to become familiar with the field.  As you write for someone else, you can develop your portfolio.  Once you have the experience and examples of your work that you need, then begin to work as a freelance writer.  Subcontracting is good, since you are given your assignments directly.  As a freelancer, you have to work on your own to develop ideas and business leads; however, you get to keep more of the payment for the writing.

Writing business can cover a range of writing types:  business/financial analysis, programming, grant-writing, marketing copy, and graphic design. To position yourself better than the competition, consider combing your skills with a friend, who is a graphic designer, MBA, web designer, or has another area of expertise to complement your own.

Cultivate your network by keeping in touch on LinkedIn, email, and in person.  Sign up for alerts by authors you know.  Be active in local and national chapters of organizations where you are a member; offer to volunteer at registration, get in free or at a reduced rate to conferences or workshops.  Share information with others in your field.  This can be advantageous; don’t think of it as a zero sum game.  Conceptualize it as plenty of work to go around.

To get started, build your resume, by writing as much as you can.  Network, network, network to find freelancing opportunities.  Specialize in a specific genre.  Build your online professional presence via LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook.  Utilize organizations the San Diego Biotechnology Network, ScienceOnline, and Oxbridge Roundtable.

Lisa Silverman is a patent attorney with a PhD from Stanford.  She went directly from her PhD program to law school.  Presently, she is an associate at Morrison & Foerster LLP.

A law degree is not required to be a patent agent.  Agents have a BS in science and take a patent bar exam.  Patent agents do very similar work to patent attorneys.  They write patent applications and file patent applications.  Attorneys can move into other fields like litigation, licensing, and contracts.  Patent agents stick to patents.

Both agents and attorneys write patent applications.  If you work with a big client, you work with in house attorneys.  Working for smaller companies, you tend to work directly with scientist; in this case, having a science background can be very beneficial.

When filing patent application, Patent Office usually says that there is already a patent covering the area of your submission.  To refute this, you have to use scientific knowledge and legal arguments.

Attorneys with PhDs can also work on patent portfolio management, assessing how patents will fit into business goals for a company.  They can also assist with due diligence:  licensing or acquiring another company; how worthwhile are patents.  To address these questions, you search papers and see what is out there, evaluating whether or not something new will be patentable.

Law firms are willing to train people with strong technical backgrounds; do not necessarily have to go to law school.  Think strategically to position yourself for a particular job. Good communication skills are important to talk to clients on phone, strong write good patent applications, respond to request for information from the patent office.  Attention to detail is critical; there are many very specific rules and deadlines.  You need to be able to pick up new scientific ideas quickly and discus them competently.  These skills that can be honed while a student.

One advantage of being an attorney (and not just a patent agent) is that you can move in to other fields such as litigation, licensing, and contracts.

Lisa loves her job.  After working in the same project for 5 years on her doctorate, she enjoys the new technology and clients.  She works with clients at an interesting stage of development, where their companies have a potential patent.

Dr. Jennifer Grodberg
is the Senior Director of Regulatory Affairs at Trius Therapeutics.  She is heavily involved with American Medical Writer’s Association (AMWA).

In brief, someone in regulatory affairs does everything and then some.

Regulatory affairs (RA) professionals provide strategic, tactical and operations direction and support for working within the regulations to expedite the development and delivery of safe and effective healthcare products to individuals around the world.  RA people play a role throughout the healthcare product life cycle from concept (drug discovery) through product obsolescence.  They monitor evolution of health care, general economics, and legislation, bridging the gap between regulatory functions and organization business activities.

As a RA professional, you are involved with a product from premarketing, post-marketing, interfacing with different areas inside the company, and strategic planning, as seen in slide 14 of the presentation.  Your work encompasses business, clinical lab work, quality (QC/QA), and scientific research.  You facilitate these processes, giving counsel, but not making the ultimate decisions.

As a project manager of sorts, you herd cats coordinating document preparation.  You generate and edit documents that include:  meeting requests and background materials, investigational new drug applications, pediatric plans, and requests for FDA/comments/waivers.

Jennifer got into regulatory affairs to do something different.  She was interested in the later stages of the drug development process and had gone through her 3rd lay off.  To transition into this new field, she took writing courses from the American Medical Writer Association.  There are also a variety of courses offered through UCSD Extension for alternate careers.

To land a job, Jennifer reorganized her resume listing her coursework and transferable skills first.  She sought out ground level positions to gain experience.  And as always:  network, network, network.  Her words of encouragement are that there is “no one way to land the job” and that “You don’t necessarily land the position you want from the get go”.  For example, she presently is using temporary workers to organize files for an FDA audit.  There workers are gaining familiarity with key FDA documents.

Raymond Clark is a Project Manager for Global Health at San Diego State University and is the founder of the National Postdoctoral Association.

He assists in giving public policy to politicians.  Science policy is that area that deals with the public, determining how science can best serve the public need.  Setting public policy is a powerful tool:  it can free a field or shut down initiatives.  More scientists are needed to help guide science policy.

Most of public policy is conducted inside the beltway in Washington DC.  Congress funds science.  The USA invests more in science than any other country in the world.  Setting science policy is crucial as this controls the funding for research.  Policy will be made whether or not the money is there to fund initiatives.

Congress has no non-partisan advice.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) sponsor think tanks to provide opinions to the government.  The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is the gold standard for just such an NGO.  They give training to individuals and place them in agencies. American Chemistry Society offers Policy Fellowships.  National Academies of Sciences also offers fellowships.

To work in public science policy, you need to work with government.  This does not have to be on the national level, as states are also entering the arena.  The California Counsel on Science and Technology one such example to this.

How do you get into science policy?  Need to know more about it; read policy articles on policy, ethical issues, nanotechnology, problems, pressure points, Nature, Science, and websites. Many professional societies offer fellowship programs to work in Congress.

Specific training to do this—start your own course for this, engage people with seminars; volunteer.  Take something you have worked on, network with people doing science policy at conferences.  Look beyond the bench.

Offer assistance to local lawmakers on setting policy, rules, regulations, etc.  Approach them with the question, how can I help you make better decisions.

There is no one route to working in science policy.  Consider working in a think tank.  Get involved in science policy because it affects you and your country.

What can we do about sequestration?  Congress gets so little done, hard to say.  Science becomes a pawn to politics.

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A Basic Solution: Effective Science Communication Impacts Research Funding

Posted by Jill Roughan May 3rd, 2013 .
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SDBNApril2013

Obtaining funding to support basic research has always challenged scientists and entrepreneurs.  However, in today’s tumultuous economic climate and looming sequester cuts, the future of life science funding is more uncertain than ever.  Since San Diego has been rated among the top life science biotech regions in the US and is home to some of the world’s top research institutions, one of the things that San Diego can rely on is that we are great at innovation. So, how can we, as a community, ensure that this innovation is financially supported despite these circumstances?  A panel of local science communication experts gathered to discuss these issues at SDBN’s April 29th Biotech Journalism Panel event. The panelists were Brad Fikes (San Diego Union Tribune), Heather Chambers (California Healthcare Institute), and Brian Orelli (Freelance Journalist). The panel was moderated by Carin Canale, Founder of Canale Communications and member of the Biocom board.

The Success Story – San Diego, the Media, and Stem Cell Research

Let’s face it, scientists have experiments to do and grants to prepare.  Most don’t want to be bothered with the particulars of how and with whom to communicate their science, outside of their sphere.  But what if there was evidence that effective science communication to the public actually impacted funding?  This question started the panel discussion and we quickly focused our attention on San Diego’s own success story: stem cell research.  It is clear that media coverage of the stellar stem cell research community helped put our city on the map in this field.  Raising public awareness of the innovative science we were doing ultimately impacted funding decisions made in Congress, the NIH, and alternative funding sources, including the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM).  Within the last 5 years, San Diego has become the one of the premiere regions for stem cell research and works closely with CIRM which is bringing top-rate scientists, employment opportunities and funding into the region.

However, it won’t come to anyone’s surprise that this wasn’t easy and basic research is a hard sell.  So, what reagents were added to the stem cell research ‘media beaker’?  Turns out, just as the science, the solution was basic as well.   The main components were:

  1. Articles were written that appealed to a mass audience and were very broad.  Hyperlinks were added to the articles if someone wanted to obtain more detailed information.
  2. The articles brought in the patient perspective.  Disease-related basic research is relevant for patients and they’re very keen to find out the latest news.
  3. Blogs targeting the more engaged or educated consumer.

San Diego’s Next Success Story – You

SDBNApril2013event
Photo courtesy Ramy Aziz, who Tweeted it during the event.

A general rule of thumb and what is most important is that scientists need to know how to tell their story to different audiences.  If you are able to effectively communicate your work with your peers, a layperson, various funding agencies, your institute’s Public Information Officer and a reporter, this will increase your chance for exposure because all of these individuals will share your interesting story. The panelists provided some helpful tips on things to keep in mind when trying to ‘sell your story.’

  1. To avoid being misinterpreted, talk slowly and restate what you’re saying or have the individual explain your story back to you.
  2. Treat interviews as a conversation; provide analogies; don’t just read from a polished abstract or press release.
  3. Explain why your work is unique from other research in your field.
  4. Hit the ‘high points’ not ‘all points’; Decide what are the most important elements of your story that you want to share.

Taking Matters into Your Own ‘Tweets’

One great way to get your message out there is Twitter.  Scientists tend to be risk-averse when they are experimenting with new models of scientific communication (they have enough experiments to do).  However, we know that life scientists have used social media platforms such as Twitter, LinkedIn, and blogging, to obtain funding, find jobs, and build collaborations.  The platform that has most recently gained a lot of momentum in the life science realm is Twitter. Twitter is an online networking tool that allows users to engage in a world-wide conversation by sharing text- based content—called tweets—of up to 140 characters. It is estimated that 3-5% of life scientists are currently using Twitter and this percentage is rapidly growing.  Tweeting has evolved into a great resource where the dynamics have helped create an environment of positive scientific exchange.  In fact, attendees at the SDBN event were tweeting and you can follow their virtual conversation here.

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