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CSUN Struggles for Traction With Biotech Program

Biotech: A Step Toward The Future. Special Report: By CARLOS MARTINEZ Staff Reporter When Alfred E. Mann agreed to build an $80 million research complex to house MiniMed Inc. (now Medtronic MiniMed) at Cal State Northridge, many figured it, and the help he planned to give to boost the school’s biotech studies program, would be enough to attract new science students and faculty to the campus. And four years later, the school has expanded its biotech offerings by about two dozen classes, but its efforts to compete for life science students with traditional powerhouses in the field like Caltech, UCLA and USC remain largely ineffective. “We’re not in the same place (academically),” said Lou Ann Kennedy, Cal State Northridge provost. “We really haven’t been competing with these other schools, but we’re using this partnership with MiniMed as a recruiting tool.” The school has increased its overall enrollment since 1995, from about 24,000 students then to 32,000 now. Enrollment in biotech-related courses and majors has also steadily increased. “But it’s difficult to say whether more students are coming here because of biotech,” Kennedy said. Because biotech studies range across several disciplines biology, microbiology, engineering and computer science college administrators say it’s hard to quantify the number of students attracted by the opportunity to work in the relatively new field. In 1998, MiniMed built its four-building, 700,000-square-foot complex on 28 acres on the north side of the campus. The buildings now house Medtronic MiniMed, other firms and laboratories used by the school for research. Cal State Northridge has touted its relationship with Medtronic MiniMed in publicity materials, the school catalogue and its Web site in an effort to attract more students and faculty. Stevan Birnbaum, a Cal State Northridge lecturer on finance and manager of a biotech venture capital fund, said the school has gotten a fair amount of attention from students attracted by its emphasis on biotech, but neither he nor the school were able to say how many. “I’ve had biotech students come into my class with some solid ideas about what it takes to start up a biotech firm,” Birnbaum said. “But I don’t think we’re planning to put Caltech out of business.” Mann, however, hopes the school’s graduates will eventually make their way to his firms and other area biotech and medical device companies. “We have some students already working part time, but we’d like to see more after they graduate,” he said, noting that it’s too early to tell what impact Medtronic MiniMed’s relationship with the school will have on supplying a talented workforce to the area since it was begun less than four years ago. As part of its partnership with MiniMed, the school said it has created a number of opportunities for internships and research opportunities for students. “You’re seeing a lot more schools getting into biotech with their own programs,” said Edward Pope, president of Westlake Village-based Solgene Therapeutics. “Northridge recognizes the value of the industry.” Jerry Lee, a UCLA biology professor, said schools like CSUN are emphasizing the disciplines that feed into biotech like never before. By bringing more attention to drug development areas along with medical device development, schools are responding to the growing industry. But Lee, like Kennedy, sees Cal State Northridge’s biotech program as an enhancement to its general curriculum, not as an effective way to attract better students or more prestigious faculty members. Gary Clark, president of the non-profit Ventura County Biotechnology Institute, said local biotechs eventually will benefit from Cal State Northridge’s efforts. “There’s no doubt that companies will benefit from a ready pool of talent trained at the university,” Clark said. But even if Cal State Northridge’s drive is still in its early stages, it already has stiff local competition: Cal State Channel Islands welcomes its first students on the grounds of the former Camarillo State Hospital this fall. That school is developing a biotechnology program as part of its overall undergraduate biology program. Having strong academic programs closely located to the area’s cluster of biotech firms is a big incentive for firms to hire its young graduates, said Ahmed Enany, executive director of the Southern California Biomedical Council. “There is a big demand for well-trained people at these biotechs,” he said, noting that many companies now must recruit staff from out of state. According to the California Health Institute’s newly released study, biomedical research accounts for more than 125,000 jobs in Southern California, with an average salary of more than $50,000. Enany said research opportunities available at Cal State Northridge are another plus for biotech’s medical device companies. Electronic and software components have become an integral part of implants and other related technologies in the biotech area, Enany said, noting that Cal State Northridge could well become an important source of research in that area.

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