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The Business of Life Science

The CEO of a hospital, two businessmen, a biologist and a chemist are having dinner together one evening. No, this isn't the beginning of a bad joke; it happens every Tuesday night at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business in a new class offered to business and life sciences graduate students.

Business Life Science

The Business of Life Sciences class is part of the Academy PLUS Life Sciences MBA program.

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The class -- "The Business of Life Sciences" -- is part of the Academy PLUS Life Sciences MBA program. The seven-week class places students into six groups -- each with two business students and four life sciences students -- and challenges them to develop a plan that takes life sciences technology from the laboratory to the hospital room. The class has three goals: teach students the life sciences value chain, facilitate a project that allows business and life sciences students to work together and place the students in the same room with experts in the field.

According to Larry Davidson, professor of Business Economics and Liaison for Healthcare and Life Sciences, the class fills a gap in the options provided to Kelley MBA students.

"About 10 percent of our MBA students really want to work for companies like Lilly," said Davidson. "But before this program there was nothing really special for them to study here at IU."

So Davidson, in conjunction with several others including Matt Rubin of the Indiana University Research & Technology Center, devised the class to serve these students' needs.

"The class is perfectly aligned with my future career goal -- which is definitely to stay in the health care industry -- but on the business side instead of policy," said Jaime Haak, a second year MBA student. "And the class isn't just theoretical; it's actually working with people on a real life situation getting practical experience."

With help from Davidson and Rubin, and insight from expert speakers, the students are working toward developing a plan to take a cancer biomarker -- a testable, microscopic indicator that a patient has cancer -- from discovery to application.

"The analogy I use is a gold bar," said Rubin. "If I gave you a gold bar, what would you do with it? Probably sell it. But to whom; a bank or a jeweler? The cancer biomarker is just a more complicated bar of gold, and it's our job to sell it. That job includes understanding who the players are in the industry and figuring out who to work with and how. The process provides a wonderful 30,000-foot view of how the life science industry communicates with itself."

Along the way, students learn about the life sciences value chain comprising the many steps an idea has to climb to help patients. Some links in the chain include drug manufacturers, insurers, health planners, doctors and scientists; each harboring their own priorities.

"There are many customers on the way to the end consumer, and the next customer is often the most important," said Matt Rubin who coaches the teams during the project. "While getting the product to the consumer is the end goal, if the next player in the value chain isn't convinced that it's a good idea, the product won't make it to commercialization and won't help a single patient."

The second goal of the class is to get business students and life sciences students accustomed to working together. According to Davidson, success in the life sciences industry is based on how well scientists and businessmen communicate. The class is divided into six teams, each comprising two business students, a biology student, a chemistry student, and two other students from various fields including neurosciences, informatics and other sciences from IU's School of Medicine and College of Arts and Sciences.

"It's kind of funny, I've already overheard some science students grumbling they don't have enough business background," said Davidson. "But that's the whole point. The project will force them to communicate with the business students."

The final aspect of the class is having experts from the different steps along the value chain impart their wisdom to the class. Each session invites three speakers to the classroom for three hours of presentations, pausing halfway for a networking dinner. And so far, the speakers could not have performed better.

"The Kelley School of Business is wonderful at putting students within 10-feet of experts in the field to hear from their experience directly," said Rubin, who is working full-time at the IU Research & Technology Corp. while finishing his MBA and coaching the class. "The speakers work off each other well. Even though they're from different areas, they have had many of the same concerns."

Davidson echoed Rubin's observations saying, "All of the speakers have been on the mark and very effective. Sometimes you worry about them because they aren't professors and aren't used to speaking to a class. But they've all been terrific."

The class is proving very popular -- not just with business students but with life sciences students as well. Davidson had to close registration for this semester and turn some students away. Plus, there already are more than 50 students registered for next semester's class and Davidson hopes to enroll night-class MBA students at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). Assuming there is enough interest; students from the medical school could join those in Bloomington via teleconferencing.

"It's exciting to see that many science and business students are willing to show up at 6:15 p.m. for three hours to learn about the higher levels of the business side of life sciences," said Rubin.