Captains of Industry
Twice a week, a handful of students—seven, to be exact—settle into a small classroom situated within the University of St. Thomas’ nearly 70-year-old campus with one shared goal: to become the pioneers of Houston’s next big industry. Because for all its brilliant history defying boundaries—be it capitalizing on Spindletop’s 1901 gusher, traveling 238,900 miles to bounce on the dusty surface of the moon, or successfully transplanting that first fragile heart—Houston is still far from reaching its potential on the biotechnology frontier.
Branded as the application of biological systems to create new products or processes, the biotechnology industry bridges the gap from scientific discoveries in the lab to FDA-approved therapies administered at the bedside. Robust on the nation’s coasts yet all-but-absent at its heart, the industry requires extensive know-how of the clinical translation process, including navigating regulatory requirements and intellectual property laws, commercialization and market potential, product-specific business modeling, and proficiency in manufacturing and clinical trial requirements—a skill set surprisingly deficient in the Houston workforce despite the wealth of resources brimming within the Texas Medical Center.
“What we realized is that everything is set in Houston for a viable biotech sector to grow,” said Dominic Aquila, D. Litt. et Phil., provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of St. Thomas. “The intellectual capital is here from the Texas Medical Center, there is even financial capital—what’s been missing is the expertise to take all of these elements, all these wonderful ideas, this great opportunity for financing, and pull them all together to develop companies that can bring products from the bench to the bedside in an effective and efficient way.”
Enter the Master in Clinical Translation Management (MCTM) degree, a two-year professional program offered by the University of St. Thomas in collaboration with Houston Methodist Research Institute, which provides students a solid foundation for navigating the biotechnology industry. Its multidisciplinary coursework includes comprehensive overviews covering the sciences and principles of entrepreneurship and management, as well as the industry-specific knowledge and tools necessary for succeeding in clinical translation endeavors.
“It takes an especially well-trained individual to know this field,” Aquila explained. “This is not something a typical M.B.A. or commercialization degree can prepare you for. With biotech products, the stakes are high—it’s life and death—and you’re dealing with the FDA, which is responsible for ensuring the products that get into the marketplace help humans thrive and be healthy. There has to be a higher standard.”
Through the program’s partnership with Houston Methodist Research Institute, students spend time working alongside Houston Methodist scientists on their current case studies and clinical projects, gaining real-world experience in the clinical translation process while also helping the Institute move some of their numerous projects forward.
“For the University of St. Thomas, I think it’s a very valuable partnership for us to be able to work with Houston Methodist Research Institute, and in particular the team that they have there that has helped develop this whole program in clinical translation,” Aquila said. “Our students will have this education in a very important disciplinary area as we work as a community to think about how we develop a viable and vibrant biotech industry.”
Houston Methodist President and CEO Marc Boom, M.D., added, “It is vitally important Houston Methodist forge academic partnerships like this because they can benefit our patients and the Houston and Texas economies. Each year, new entrepreneurs will graduate from the University of St. Thomas, focused and passionate about developing exciting discoveries made in Houston Methodist laboratories and clinics into real technologies that will benefit our patients.”
The collaboration is part of the University of St. Thomas’ ongoing efforts to partner with local and national organizations to expand their network and ultimately broaden opportunities for their students. In recognition of their commitment to these partnerships, as well as their growing STEM offerings including their newly resumed nursing program and the MCTM degree, the University of St. Thomas was officially designated a member of the Texas Medical Center earlier this year.
“I think these programs, along with our traditional rigorous coursework, make us good citizens of the Texas Medical Center,” said Aquila. “We’ve had a long tradition of graduating students who do very well in medical school and the health care field, and we look forward to contributing to the overall mission of the Texas Medical Center.”
The MCTM program, which enrolled its first seven students in January 2015, is looking for students with a strong undergraduate background in science or business, although anyone with a keen interest in the industry is encouraged to apply. It is designed for professionals and meets after working hours to accommodate most schedules.
The creation of the MCTM degree is timely considering the current momentum throughout the TMC to cultivate a thriving biotech industry. From the TMCx accelerator program within the TMC’s Innovation Institute to JLABS @TMC and other university-affiliated professional programs, the growing industry will be ready and willing to place these graduates at the helm.
“To me, this program is the best of all possible worlds for someone who has a certain business sense about them, but also wants to make a real difference,” said Aquila. “If you’re in a company, or you start your own company, and you manage to get life-saving products to the market in an efficient way—who can put a price on that?”