Last month, LabCentral Ignite announced its 2nd Annual LabCentral Ignite Golden Ticket is open for applications. LabCentral Ignite Golden Tickets cover the cost of one bench and one scientist for one year at LabCentral, provide winners a $15,000 cash prize, and exclusive access to their network and resources as a LabCentral Ignite Fellow.
Last year, winners Nanopath and Harmony Baby Nutrition were able to leverage LabCentral’s extensive network of investors, innovators, and biotech expertise to advance women’s health and baby formula more naturally designed for better nutrition.
We caught up with Ignite’s executive director Gretchen Cook-Anderson to hear more about their programs and why Kendall Square holds so much opportunity for positive change.
KSA: What are the greatest challenges facing people of color and other historically excluded people and students, when it comes to workforce access and integration, especially in biotech?
GRETCHEN: The most immense challenges those who’ve been historically underrepresented in the biotech workforce face include easier access to clear information about types of roles, educational requirements, compensation and how to connect with real training and job opportunities in biotech. This has been due to conscious bias as well as just lack of intention and attention on excluded populations in the past.
Beyond that, the life sciences sector isn’t one traditionally talked about around the kitchen table in communities of color or in more under-resourced communities where degrees in higher education aren’t as prevalent. That’s unfortunate to date because there are tons of roles in the sector that support innovation that do not require college degrees but we haven’t done as much as we can to make these roles known and to proactively connect people to these jobs to fil industry demand. Even among underrepresented professionals with higher education degrees in science-related disciplines, biotech has not yet been a sector of focus – due to lack of social capital tied to the sector and often due to a steady focus on more “traditional” fields in medicine and nursing. Then, of course, there’s the need for more professionals to fill the other non-science support functions in accounting, marketing, legal affairs, lab operations, real estate, and finance that most may not consider in biotech without the industry making more noise about its workforce requirements across every type of role imaginable. There’s hope on the horizon, though, relative to life sciences pulling out the bullhorn to amplify its messaging as inclusively as possible to a more diverse workforce. Industry organizations in partnership, like LabCentral, KSA, the Massachusetts Life Science Center, MassBio, MassBioEd, are increasingly connecting with historically disconnected communities through community engagement and outreach efforts to demystify the life sciences and actively welcome a broader cross-section of underrepresented professionals – particularly more people of color and women — into the industry in both conventional and unconventional ways. Together, we’re launching a public awareness campaign pilot this fall, led by LabCentral Ignite to further advance these efforts. In doing so, we are also inviting greater creativity and innovation, and acknowledging that the past barriers to entry have also stifled degrees of innovation that can improve the quality of all of our lives.
KSA: How can Kendall’s current talent base, specifically leaders, support their journey?
GRETCHEN: In order to spur innovation, diversity of thought, perspective, and experience is absolutely necessary. When we talk to industry professionals and hiring organizations, it is evident that they are seeing a shortage of “qualified” candidates. However, we are also seeing qualified talent, especially those from underrepresented populations, go underestimated, underemployed, and even unemployed. Through our work with partner organizations, LabCentral Ignite is hoping to bridge this gap by connecting underrepresented students and innovators to academic, technical skills-building, mentoring, job placement and board and leadership preparation opportunities that fuel biotech diversity and inclusively transform careers. Professionals and leaders in Kendall Square can make a difference by creating opportunities for internships and mentorship. In addition, it’s important to diversify your hiring practices by going outside of your network, recruiting directly from training programs and educational institutions that specifically work with women, Black, Latinx/a/o, and other people of color.
KSA: Tell us about Career Forge, and what makes the partnership between companies and training partners, LEAS LAB and JVS so effective for the current cohort of Forgers?
GRETCHEN: LabCentral Ignite’s Career Forge program aims to redefine how diverse talent interfaces with the hyper-growth life sciences industry by assessing, up-skilling, and placing talent into entry-level technical roles in innovative research labs. Career Forge is meeting untapped, underrepresented talent where they are, assessing their skills gaps, and needs, and offering them an expedited training program, free of cost, that allows them to advance their careers. This work would not be possible without our incredible education and training partners at LEAS Lab and JVS Boston. We see ourselves at Ignite as a convener and connector, so, rather than “reinventing the wheel,” we identified local organizations that already have the qualified staff and worked with them to develop the Career Forge program training and curriculum. JVS Boston provides career coaching to fine tune “Forgers’” workplace competencies, including resume-building, interview skills, and time management. Our partners at LEAS Lab lead the in-lab technical training where forgers master pipetting, aseptic technique, lab safety practices, and more. Upon completion of the program, we work with the candidates to identify areas of scientific interest and connect them with hiring organizations in our vast biotech network.
KSA: What inspires you personally about this work?
GRETCHEN: When Forgers opt-into this program, they are taking a leap and committing their personal time and energy to hone their skills, advance their careers, and, hopefully, improve their lives. It has been an inspiration to watch these individuals, who are taking time away from their families, school, and work, show up engaged and enthusiastic, going above and beyond to better themselves. We have just completed our second cohort of Career Forge, and by happenstance, both have consisted of all women with extremely diverse backgrounds. In an industry where women, especially women of color, have long been underrepresented, it is inspiring to see two cohorts of women forging their careers in biotech.
KSA: How does bench space at LabCentral allow founders to tap into Kendall’s innovation ecosystem? And, what do those interactions look like?
GRETCHEN: What has made LabCentral, and so many of our resident and alumni companies, so successful is that working in a LabCentral facility goes so far above and beyond just a bench or a lab space. LabCentral focuses on reducing friction and creating collisions for resident companies, fostering a true community where innovation can thrive. From roundtables with other early-stage CEOs, in-house art gallery and receptions, DEI training for start-up leaders, and beyond, we strive to support all aspects of our resident companies as they launch and grow. Our 60+ LabCentral resident companies get access to our extensive network of over 100 alumni companies, 45 industry sponsors, and other partner organizations.
To learn more about LabCentral Ignite visit: www.labcentralignite.org/