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Entrepreneurship in the classroom: a lesson from high school

A meeting between BCA students and the FDA (source: courtesy of R. Pergolizzi)

A meeting between BCA students and the FDA (source: courtesy of R. Pergolizzi)

Educating the next generation of business-minded scientists is not a task to be taken lightly. Many institutions around the world include in their academic curriculum courses on technology transfer, performance management, organizational theory, and financial decision-making, even in graduate programs that focus primarily on basic science subjects such as biochemistry or genetics. These courses are often optional and not compulsory. Future scientists are therefore left to fend for themselves when it comes to gaining a proper understanding of what being an entrepreneur in the biotechnology sector really entails.

A small school in New Jersey, however, has been pioneering a completely novel approach to provide future scientists an education in entrepreneurship. What’s new about their programme is not only the depth of the educative experience, and the degree of autonomy given to individual participants, but also the age of the students: some of them are as young as 16 years old.

The programme, called “Entrepreneurial Science”, is led by Dr. Robert Pergolizzi and takes place at Bergen County Technical Schools District in Paramus, New Jersey. Bergen County Academies is a magnet high-school in nearby Hackensack that strives to provide top-notch STEM education to its students. It is in this context that students created a virtual start-up company, called Provita, and took on all the roles – such as CEO, COO, and the like – which usually are occupied by the more mature population of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers making their first steps into the biotech start-up field.

The Provita project has generated some media attention online recently. We were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to ask Dr. Pergolizzi a few questions about the project.

How did the “Entrepreneurial science” project get started at Bergen County Academies?

The Bergen County Academies (BCA) has a philosophy of using hands-on, problem-solving approach to education.  One of the methods used to implement this approach is the concept of Wednesday “projects”.  Each week all the seniors leave the school to attend internships and all other students take part in a project during the AM hours.  Some of these are mandatory, others elective, but all students participate.

Part of the reason I joined BCA was their professed desire to develop a world-class research program for students.  This program, which has become very successful and popular, has resulted in many students winning high-profile scholarship competitions (Intel, ISEF, Siemens, etc.), and inevitably led to the questions “How can discoveries be commercialized?” and “How can you translate a discovery to a marketable product?”.

This was the motivation for the development of Entrepreneurial Science.  I chose the biotech/pharmaceutical company model since it is the most highly regulated and with the most difficult path to market, assuming that if students learn how to traverse THAT wilderness, anything else would be easy.  We discuss the FDA regulations, GMP manufacture, the structure and design of clinical trials, and all other topics associated with bringing a new drug or device to market.  The FDA has actually sent a representative each year for the past three years to address the students.  We are very grateful for this.

Students apply to join the project and then decide if they want to compete for leadership positions.  They submit letters and resumes to the “Board”, composed of myself and a few other faculty members, and we choose a CEO.  Other leadership positions are also defined, but the CEO now has a hand in the selection of his or her “team”.  Tasks are assigned, deadlines proposed and the students present ideas to each other. Some are selected for further development and consideration.  The Marketing group helps to define the market, and proposes methods of approaching the market with advertising, a web presence and any other means at their disposal.  Each year a business plan is developed to guide the activities of the group.

At the end of each project (a full school year in the case of Entrepreneurial Science) the students must participate in a “culmination”.  This is different for each project, but in our case the students develop a presentation which is given to an assembled team of CEOs, CFOs, venture capitalists and business school deans and professors, who challenge the students and grade them on their presentation. During the first year the project was offered, we were encouraged to write a grant to the NJ WIRED program for workforce development.  I wrote a proposal that was funded to develop and share the curriculum with other schools.  This modest funding helped to buy supplies and resources for the program.

What kind of school is Bergen County Academies?

BCA is a  free, public , magnet technical school for gifted and talented students who live within Bergen County, NJ.  There is a very rigorous entrance process (recommendations, math and verbal testing and an interview), and all students must enter as freshmen.  We take about ten percent of the students who apply. There are seven academies at BCA, including medical, science, engineering, performing and visual arts, telecommunications, business and culinary.  There are currently about 1100 students at BCA.

What was the response from the students?

This project has become very popular.  We always have multiple students applying for leadership positions.  One of the problems we face is trying to model a start-up company when you have thirty or more students who want to participate, but we form teams and do the best we can.

 Do you see this project as a valuable teaching tool to encourage entrepreneurship in future scientists at a very early age?

I am personally delighted at some of the remarkable ideas the students have developed.  Apparently “thinking outside the box” is easy for them because they have not been programmed to see the boundaries at this age.  There is a lesson in this for all of us. The level of excitement is tangible in the room when the kids realize that they have come up with an idea that has merit.  I believe this will stay with them and encourage them to be bold and act upon their ideas in the future, perhaps forming companies of their own.

Will any tangible scientific breakthroughs result from this project?

Interestingly, there already have been some ideas that are worthy of development.  One of the first ideas the kids had was an improvement on an existing drug to treat hemophilia A, a serious inherited bleeding disorder.  The idea came to the attention of some scientists and physicians from the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) in NYC, who were so impressed that they not only paid for the students to speak to a patent attorney, but offered to manufacture, package and distribute the drug in return for a percentage of the revenue if intellectual property could be achieved. This is still in progress, but it does illustrate the scope of what is possible when you give bright young people a challenge.  There are other, new ideas the students are working on that I think have even greater potential.

What other research institutions have been contacted, and what kind of work has been going on with them?

In addition to the already mentioned FDA and MSKCC, several of the students have been interacting with several labs and institutions in this area.  We have developed an ongoing interaction with a high-tech school in South Korea, who have modeled a program after ours, and with whom we have annual visits and regular teleconferences.  We share information and discoveries with them.  Many of the professors and deans of business schools in our area have come to present to our project.

What kind of mentoring do students receive, in practice? What is their day-to-day routine like?

Much of what goes in in this project happens outside the classroom.  The students use Moodle and Google Docs to stay informed with regard to developments.  Some of the students have contacted professional who have offered their mentorship and advice, and this serves to reinforce the sense of how things work in the real world.   The routine varies from day to day, but the underlying principle is that nothing happens if they don’t make it happen.  They are not spoon fed.

What are some future directions of the project? Do you see similar projects potentially taking place in different schools around the country, or is BCA a unique place?

The result of our attempts to give the curriculum to other schools has been disappointing.  Whether due to lack of appropriate faculty or resources, no one has taken us up on our offer.  BCA is a place where we are encouraged to try educational experiments with our students if the underlying principles are sound.  This is my first experience at teaching high school, currently in my sixth year, so I cannot claim any expertise in comparing high schools, but I do believe that BCA is a rather special place that produces future leaders.

We also asked Johua Meier, the 16-year old CEO of Provita, a few questions.

What is your role as CEO of Provita like? What are your responsibilities?

Provita has offered an unparalleled opportunity to truly experience the field of biotechnology and understand the integration of science, entrepreneurship, and global collaboration. As CEO, I manage the project and ensure that appropriate tasks and research are conducted by each member. However, the position shines through collaboration — utilizing the wide-ranging skills of each Provita student and working with others from around the globe.

What other positions do your fellow classmates occupy?

One of the qualities that make Provita so unique are the eclectic interests of its student body. Divided into focused academies, BCA has students interested in medicine, marketing, finance, visual design, computer science, etc. These passions come together through Provita; students lead marketing, finance, and international branches, and directors of drug development ensure the continued advancement of our products.

What do you think of the project as a whole? Do you think it will help you in your future career?

Provita has been one of the most valuable experiences of my high school career. At Provita, we learn by living in the world of biotechnology, experiencing scientific research and entrepreneurship in such a realistic environment.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

While I have always struggled to answer this question, Provita has taught me that I do not need to wait until graduate school to decide. Provita represents the integration of my passions: in the future, I need not choose just one.

This post was written by:

Stefano Iantorno View author bio

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