A key differentiator between two equal job applicants can often be whether they can hit the ground running—more simply said, how much on-the-job training an employer will have to invest in a new hire until they are able to work independently.
Showing a potential employer that they can work independently is not a problem for Penn State graduates of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation minor. One of common qualities they all have is career readiness, as Beatrice Sirakaya calls it.
Sirakaya, an assistant teaching professor and biotechnology training program technologist in the Eberly College of Science, was named the director of the newly established Bio-Tech cluster of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation (ENTI) minor in the spring of 2020. The minor has 10 clusters, including the new Bio-Tech cluster, and more than 600 students have earned the minor since its inception in 2013. In the fall 2020 semester, eight students enrolled in the Bio-Tech cluster.
In the ENTI minor, students learn the necessary skills for success: innovative thinking, leadership skills, and management and planning tools. The Bio-Tech cluster requires nine core credits that are integral to all clusters, with an additional minimum of nine credits specific to the cluster. In these additional nine credits, students build their hard skills in the life or physical sciences by selecting foundational coursework in cell biology, followed by a 400-level elective in the life or physical sciences and a capstone course.
The 400-level elective allows students to increase their knowledge of a scientific discipline applicable to the fields of biotechnology and entrepreneurship. The capstone course requires students to synthesize biotech and business knowledge by proposing a plan to develop and market a biotechnology product. It also puts students in situations where they have the chance to practice their interpersonal skills by engaging in team building and customer discovery and designing sprint product development exercises and intellectual property (IP) law clinics.
“The combination of hard skills in the life and physical sciences along with interpersonal skills gives students the opportunity to be better prepared for future careers,” Sirakaya said. “The nature of this career readiness applies to those students who want to go to grad school, as well. It’s really important that they know how to work on teams and think independently.”
Sirakaya began her career in marketing and management before becoming fascinated by STEM education, and she said her true passion lies in engaging students in the STEM fields and providing them with additional value in their coursework. An underlying teaching philosophy in her biotechnology courses is to give students the opportunity to develop interpersonal skills along with their formal study of the sciences.
Brett Cotten, a 2018 graduate of the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (BMB) program, added the ENTI minor during his second year, prior to the establishment of the Bio-Tech cluster. “Most BMB students were set on going to work in labs or going to med school,” he said. “Even though this seemed like the path to take, I knew early on that I wanted to go into the business side of science. I was sad there was not a biotech minor in ENTI, but the next best thing was the engineering cluster.”
As part of the Engineering Entrepreneurship minor, Cotten created some tech projects focused on light therapy and apparel sustainability. But he always desired to be surrounded by fellow biotech students who would be on the same page for bio-related projects. “I think the Bio-Tech cluster in the ENTI minor will help students with the same interest share ideas,” he said. “Many who take this minor don’t necessarily intend to launch their own businesses right away, but they get the entrepreneurial mindset, apply it to biotech, and can become intrapreneurs in larger operations, too, if they’d like. It is an opportunity to explore other roles in biotech, like business development, intellectual property law, or finance, and can unlock new avenues. It certainly helped define my path.”
Cotten is emblematic of the entrepreneurial mindset. As an undergrad, he attended a conference where a professor from another university encouraged him to consider writing a book about something that inspired him. The professor related that the research process for the book would help him identify what he was passionate about, demonstrate knowledge in his chosen space, and help build his network. Cotten took this advice and began interviewing biotech entrepreneurs to gather information, forge new relationships, and try to determine a path forward in his career. The result was a book called Gene-trepreneur, which aims to help undergrads in STEM open their minds to novel opportunities outside of laboratories and medical school, for instance. The book highlights entrepreneurial ventures in alternative proteins, materials sustainability, species conservation, biofabrication, and more—all with highly technical approaches.
“If someone loves science but questions spending their life in a lab, the ENTI Bio-Tech cluster is a really a good way to see if they might like the business development, financial, or regulatory side of things,” he said.
Cotten currently lives in Cambridge, England, where he has completed the Master of Philosophy in Bioscience Enterprise program (essentially an MBA for biotech) at the University of Cambridge. He recently joined an impact-focused venture builder called Counterfactual Ventures, which seeks to improve human health, animal welfare, climate, and food security. His book, Gene-trepreneur, has been listed as a number one new release for young adult science and nature e-books on Amazon and is now part of the required reading for Sirakaya’s capstone course.
The Entrepreneurship and Innovation minor is a part of the Center for Penn State Student Entrepreneurship, which is housed in Penn State Undergraduate Education, the academic administrative unit that provides leadership and coordination for University-wide programs and initiatives in support of undergraduate teaching and learning at Penn State.