Throughout his college career, Evan Monson has done genetic research to answer fundamental scientific questions. But when he heard of an opportunity to work on curing human diseases in a setting that mimics a start-up drug company, he knew that was how he wanted to spend his senior year.
In the new Life Sciences senior capstone program at BYU, students like Monson are receiving a unique hands-on experience developing new drugs and competing to impress industry experts.
“This is a process that most college students don't get a chance to be a part of, so I was very excited about that,” says Monson, a senior majoring in Plant and Wildlife Sciences. “Obviously I didn't understand exactly what the class entailed, but I wanted to be a part of it.”
The program offers the opportunity for undergrads to experience what it would be like to work within a small biology-based technology company. The program mimics a biotech startup by having students develop potential drugs that fight human diseases, ready those for human clinical trial, and see if their developments can attract potential investors.
On April 13, two teams pitched their technology, results and development plans to a panel of biotech experts and investors. The judges will act as if they are choosing whether to finance each team’s start-up, and students will have the chance to receive real world feedback on their efforts. The top team will receive a cash prize.
“In a university, students don’t often get a chance to work on things that would obviously translate into some commercial product or service,” says Professor Marc Hansen, one of the faculty mentors from the Physiology and Developmental Biology department. “How such ideas or technology platforms are developed in a small start-up company is very different than what is done in an academic lab.
“This program is designed to give students hands on experience in precisely how small companies with novel technologies have to operate, including considerations about aspects of business development. In short, students spend two semesters doing all the things what they would do if they founded a start-up company,” Hansen said.
The capstone students were selected from a group of applicants based on their previous coursework and research experience. Students applying had to have a strong background in research. Hansen noted that many students have been heavily involved in research, even since their freshman year, so the competition for positions is tough.
“I really liked the idea of working with other seniors with significant lab experience,” says David Morrell, who will enter medical school this fall. “I felt that working with other experienced seniors would give me the opportunity to accomplish more in our research efforts.”
This year, the program started small with only a few teams, but there are plans to expand and add new teams and faculty mentors starting next year.