Diversity in biosciences

    Pharmaceutical and biotech entrepreneurs from around the Delaware Valley are gathering in University City tomorrow (11/8) for a conference. The big difference at this meeting is that most participants will be people of color. From WHYY’s health and science desk, Kerry Grens reports.

    Pharmaceutical and biotech entrepreneurs from around the Delaware Valley are gathering in University City tomorrow (11/8) for a conference. The big difference at this meeting is that most participants will be people of color.

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    Protez Pharmaceuticals is a small biotech company in Malvern with big ambitions – to develop new antibiotics and quell the rising problem of bacterial superbugs.

    Clarence Young, the company’s chief medical officer, shows me how they’re doing it.

    Young: So we’re standing in a laboratory. Medicinal chemistry laboratory. There are people here that are working on synthesizing new compounds. What they’re trying to do is to optimize or tweak the structure of new compounds just to see if they can optimize the antimicrobial activity or profile.

    Young didn’t start out in biotech. He’s actually an MD, which he earned from Harvard. After years of practicing in infectious disease, he switched to industry, working for GlaxoSmithKline.

    Young: One of the things that’s motivated me in my career was the idea that there was a need to have people of color in leadership positions. Not only in academic medical centers, which is where I started my career, but I think when I decided to make the change into pharmaceutical industry, I was very convinced that there was a need to have people like myself who were taking on visible roles within industry.

    This year, Young is receiving the BioLeadership award at this weekend’s Bench2Business conference, which gathers people of color who work in the life sciences. The purpose of the conference is to encourage researchers to become entrepreneurs, and also to grow the proportion of minorities represented in the life sciences. According to the National Science Foundation, in 2003, blacks and Hispanics each comprised about three percent of PhD-level scientists in the United States. That is far below their percentages of the entire population.

    Anderson: This is an area of great under-representation.

    Bernard Anderson is chair of the Bench2Business advisory board, and the first African American faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.

    Anderson: One of the major facts of life in the Philadelphia region is racial inequality in economic life. That inequality is reflected largely in the disparity of people of different racial and ethnic groups who are in those fields that pay the highest income and produce the highest opportunities for growth and development and that happens to be the sciences.

    Anderson says biotech and pharmaceuticals are the fastest growing industries in the region

    Anderson: We will never expand opportunities for those of color unless we get them on the track moving in the right direction in the growth sectors of the economy.

    But there are challenges that slow the progress of making the industry more diverse. Bruce Redding, the president of Encapsulation Systems in New Jersey, is the other recipient of an award this year at the Bench2Business conference – for his innovation. He’s developing a device that delivers medication through the skin via ultrasonic waves.

    Redding: This is the patch. It contains 100 units of insulin, which is enough for about 3 days for most diabetics. It snaps into a control device about the size of an iPod.

    Redding is seeking funding for the last round of testing before he can get approval from the government to market the patch.

    Redding: It’s never helped me to ever be identified as a minority, especially in the sciences. It’s always hurt. Always caused problems. It’s harder to get financing if you’re a minority, looking for funding for even products like these.

    Redding says, that’s because, in his experience, much of the biotech industry is based on networking – and if you’re not part of the established clique, you’re considered an inexperienced outsider. He adds that being African American has also been a distraction to trying to break into that network.

    Redding: It happened to me just last week when I was making a presentation to a cosmetics company…and the same thing was, gee, Bruce, what do you think about Barack Obama running for president? They get off on racial comments rather than, ok, is this product something you can use. I get that all the time. It’s an obstruction. It slows you up in trying to establish a rapport.

    Anderson at Wharton argues that discrimination is not the problem, it’s education. They are very few faculty members of color in the sciences and engineering to serve as mentors. Pennsylvania State Senator Anthony Williams says the pipeline needs to be addressed with changes to curricula in elementary and high schools that emphasize the sciences. The government can also step in, with tax credits and resources available to companies that work to diversify.

    Williams: I think government can structure it so that if you are a person of color company you know how to get to the marketplace. And some of the issues as it relates to capital revenue we can make easier and more available. But I do believe you have to compete.

    Without helping out minority entrepreneurs, Williams says the economy will suffer for it.

    Williams: Some people sort of misunderstand my belief. They think it’s some kind of social consideration, or bordering on affirmative action. This has nothing to do with that. This has to do with a reality. You just cannot leave 30% of your society sitting on a side line and think you’re going to drive an economy in this country.

    And the economy can use all the help it can get.

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