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Cal trains for bio product development

Appeared in the San Francisco BizJournal’s October 14-20, 2005 edition

By Daniel S. Levine

The University of California, Berkeley, chemical engineering department is launching a master's program to train chemical engineers to play product development roles in businesses like biotechnology.

"This fills a niche between pure technical training of a master's or Ph.D. in chemical engineering and business-driven training in an M.B.A.," said Keith Alexander, a former general manager and senior vice president of the engineering firm CH2M Hill Ltd., who was recruited as executive director of the new product development program.

Alexander said while chemical engineers through happenstance often find themselves working on product development after several years within a company, they are traditionally hired to work on the process and not the product side of a business. Nevertheless, he said, their skills have become critical to products, particularly in emerging areas of technology. The new program is intended to give students the grounding to enter the product side of a business.

"Product development is an important thing, and, in the pharmaceutical industry, it is everything," said Gary Novack, a principal of Pharma-Logic Development Inc., a San Rafael drug development consulting firm. "The way to do that is to take research ideas and turn them into products, and there's a sort of discipline about how to do that."

The program expects to enroll 10 students for the inaugural class, which will begin in 2006. Students will be required to complete a core curriculum and choose a concentration in biotechnology, microelectronics/nanoscience, consumer products, or new ventures for students interested in performing product development at start-up companies.

Students will be required to complete a two-month internship as part of their work toward a degree.

The 12-month program won $250,000 in seed funding from the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, a nonprofit that seeks to improve the science of chemistry and chemical engineering.

George Scangos, CEO of Exelixis Inc. in San Francisco, has discussed the program with Alexander. Scangos said he's unsure tat when hiring chemical engineers he will be concerned about much more than the depth of their technical knowledge. Success will depend on the curriculum and whether the program can attract faculty with industry experience, Scangos said.

"The challenge for the program is going to be finding the right mix of what it is they are going to teach," he said. "To Keith's credit, he is going around and talking to people and asking these questions about what they should be teaching kids that would be useful. It gives me some higher hopes for this program."

Related sites:

Product Development Program website

Keith Alexander