Washington Editor

VANCOUVER, British Columbia - Not all of the 900 attendees at this year's BioPartnering North America conference came to this Pacific Northwest metropolis to strike a drug development collaboration.

Instead, a number of graduate students were in attendance to gain biotechnology exposure. And after two-plus days of meeting and greeting executive-level representatives of the 450 companies at the meeting, not to mention sitting in on a variety of lectures and workshops, it's fair to say that they secured a good bit of experience.

Robert Kilpatrick, a partner at Technology Vision Group LLC, the conference's lead organizer, said the conference is "a great opportunity" for students to see "science and business come together." Most of the 13 students, who came from across Canada, already possess lengthy academic backgrounds. Several hold doctorates and master's degrees in chemistry and biology, as well as other disciplines. A number have professional experience under their belts, with business-focused career skills already on their resumes.

For MBA candidate Phuong Ngo, of the University of Alberta, the conference, in some ways, affirmed the direction of his studies. He said he accomplished networking goals and also learned about what is expected of new graduates to make the transition from student to employee. Of the students at the conference, who mingled with one another while conversing with business executives, Ngo said it appeared they had a singular focus.

"It seems like they mostly have business-development goals," he said, although at least one in the group envisions an academic-oriented career. Ngo, who already holds a master's degree in molecular biology, added that he expects to begin his career in Canada and then look to move elsewhere as the industry continues to extend its global reach.

The University of Calgary's Tony Abboud, whose scientific background includes studies of autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, has a different outlook. In four months he will complete his master's degree in biomedical technology, after which he hopes to contribute to the growth of biotechnology in his home province of Alberta. Traditional industries, such as oil, gas and forestry, still dominate that landscape, but like other regions around the world, the idea of creating a biotech-based work force holds appeal.

"I'm passionate about therapeutics and health care," Abboud said. But since he doesn't "want to be confined to a lab," he envisions working in technology transfer or licensing.

He added that biotechnology appeals to him because it "merges science with business," and also noted that he finds the growth potential attractive.

The conference's setting attracts a range of attendees and is set up primarily to facilitate business contacts and partnering. Toward that end, the meeting keeps its attendees in nearly constant contact with one another. At the same time, Ngo, Abboud and other students found it easy to reach company representatives who were patrolling the conference's halls and manning booths.

The student program was created by Technology Vision in partnership with BIOTECanada, a national trade association. Technology Vision waived fees, as well as funded travel and lodging, for the students, who were selected through a nomination and application process managed by BIOTECanada.

"From our point of view, it's a statement to the Canadian biotech community that we're a part of it," Kilpatrick said. "We view the student bursary as a way of contributing to the future of biotech in Canada by helping young people become more experienced with the commercial side."

And given its first-year success, he added, the student program will become a staple at the annual conference, now in its third year. The BioPartnering North America meeting concluded Tuesday.

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