Health/Life Sciences

Seattle Kids’s Analysis Institute launches $45M program to extend range in biotech

Alison Williams (left) and Eric Nealy, advisors to the new Seattle Children’s Postdoctoral Program. (SCRI Photo)

Seattle Children’s Research Institute (SCRI) will train scientists from groups historically underrepresented in biotech as part of a new $45 million program focused on building skills for industry careers.

“We want to create an onramp to the biotech sector for people who have traditionally not had that opportunity,” said SCRI researcher Jim Olson in a blog post. Olson is director of the new endeavor announced Tuesday, the Invent at Seattle Children’s Postdoctoral Program.

Doctoral and postdoctoral training programs too often favor candidates with early access to internships, alumni connections, or similar privileges, noted Olson. This setup can perpetuate the exclusion of groups historically under-represented in biotech, including scientists from racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds, women, and people who identify as LGBTQ+, said SCRI.

Postdoctoral programs also often have a focus on academic training.

“Over half of all PhDs go into industry, but we really don’t teach them how to go into biotech,” said Olson. “We don’t teach them how to do team science, how to make go/no go decisions. This program will offer that,” added Olson.  

The new program will offer support to 50 scholars over the next five years, who will be paired with a clinical and biotech mentor focused on the development of therapeutics for childhood diseases like cancer, sickle cell disease and immune disease.

Jim Olson, director of the Invent at Seattle Children’s Postdoctoral Program. (SCRI Photo)

The application process, traditionally focused on academic metrics like number of scientific publications, will instead “focus on a candidate’s potential, motivation, natural curiosity, creativity and commitment to building their knowledge,” said SCRI in the post.

Partners in the program include the University of Washington, Benaroya Research Institute, and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, which will provide mentorship.

The program is fueled in part by a $12.5 million award from Washington Research Foundation, the largest single-program grant in the 40-year history of the Seattle-based nonprofit.

“With the focus on generating breakthrough treatments specifically for children, along with the diversity, equity and inclusion that are at the core of the program, Seattle Children’s is poised to blaze a trail for other research institutions to follow,” said WRF Director of Grant Programs Meher Antia, in a statement.

Starting salaries will be $65,000, more than the standard offered by the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Scholars will also receive $10,000 for professional development, along with education in entrepreneurship and biotech approaches to team science.

Olson told the Timmermann Report that the idea for the program began about six years ago when one of the resarchers in his lab, Eric Nealy, came back energized from a meeting of scholars from under-represented groups. Nealy is now an advisor to the new program, along with Alison Williams, also a postdoctoral fellow in Olson’s lab.

Olson recently moved to SCRI from Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, and founded Seattle biotech companies Presage Biosciences and Blaze Bioscience. SCRI offers industry-focused infrastructure like a large cell therapy manufacturing space and has fostered spinouts such as Umoja Biopharma and GentiBio since its founding 15 years ago. In addition to WRF, the new program is funded by SCRI and private foundations.

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