Worcester Polytechnic Institute leads the way to biomanufacturing jobs

Kristine Diederich

New ideas are fermenting in Worcester, and that's not just hyperbole.

At Worcester Polytechnic Institute, a new eight-week certificate program addresses the needs of local employers and students looking for new careers. The field is biomanufacturing, and it is burgeoning in Massachusetts. The program is called Fundamentals of Biomanufacturing, and it is hands-on so students will immediately get a sense of what these types of jobs entail.

But what is biomanufacturing anyway?

"It's similar to pharmaceuticals," said Rachel Yamartino, senior program manager for WPI's Corporate and Professional Education division. "They'll use living cells to make their product."

Many of these products are drugs that will be for human consumption. Others are for renewable energy, typically biofuels. "In Massachusetts, it's primarily for drugs," said Yamartino.

Corporate and Professional Education is a division of the school that is "designed and built to serve industry's need for talent development and workplace development," said its dean, Stephen Flavin. "We provide education solutions for profit and nonprofit (companies).

"We really are focused externally," said Flavin. "We're asking companies, 'What are you struggling with? What are your skill gaps?' We come back and talk with our faculty; 'How does WPI play a role in solving workplace issues?"'

Yamartino then works with companies to design training programs. Some are unique to a particular company but others have broader application, which is how the new Fundamentals of Biomanufacturing program came about.

"(It) is essentially a program we developed for Polaroid, helping them (employees) to transition their skills," said Yamartino. Polaroid, formerly a large employer in Massachusetts, has shut down most of its operations.

Fundamentals in Biomanufacturing was developed in collaboration with representatives from Shire HGT (Human Genetic Therapies), Abbott Laboratories, Bristol Myers Squibb and Genzyme Corp. Industry professionals will be instructors in the program.

"We have a lot of contacts with biomanufacturing (companies)," she said. "We have a bioprocessing lab; we have the equipment, the expertise and facilities.

"There is a lot of need for people with these skills."

Adi Mohanty concurs. Mohanty, vice president of manufacturing and supply chain for Shire HGT, began working with Yamartino about a year ago to develop a program that would provide skilled workers for his company.

"We here at Shire were trying to figure out how to improve the recruiting. We had a huge need," he said. "We were looking at a pretty steep hiring (need); people on the (manufacturing) floor, people running (projects).

"We have a very strong training program, but it takes three to six months for an employee to be really useful on the floor," said Mohanty. A program such as this one will give new employees valuable exposure to the equipment and processes companies like Shire use to make their products.

"We need a fairly high level of educated people on the floor," said Mohanty. "Where do we get these people? It's a huge burden to us to hire people off the street."

"This provides industries a pipeline that saves them training," said Yamartino.

The prerequisites to enroll in the program are modest. Participants should be able to read and write English, have basic math skills and, according to Yamartino, a curiosity about science and its practical applications is helpful. After the course, the typical jobs participants would be prepared for include manufacturing technicians and operators, and most of these jobs would be in the direct manufacture of products. For example, at Shire HGT, people hired from a program such as this would typically be making the core substances of drug materials.

"The biggest thing in biotech is wanting to work there," Yamartino said. "People that have worked in some sort of regulated environment, like manufacturing" will understand basic procedures and have an aptitude for these types of jobs.

"We're not so worried about the educational background (of students before they enter the program)," said Mohanty, "but to find out if they have the aptitude and interest. As a company, we would encourage them to reach as far as they can."

The curriculum focuses on skills training and students will work with machinery similar to that found in the workplace. Shire HGT has donated several pieces of commercial equipment to the Bioprocessing Center at WPI's Life Sciences and Bioengineering Center.

Mohanty said providing an environment for students similar to a typical workplace is important. "The more it looks like what we do on our floor, the better," he said. "It certainly helps to have less things that are new (and) to see things that would be similar" at a job site.

"(With this program), you get some real life experience."

The outlook for the biotech industry in Massachusetts is quite good, according to Flavin, Yamartino and Mohanty. "So far, we know there are a few companies doing fairly well," said Mohanty. "They're still growing."

Yamartino estimated 500 jobs could be created in two years. Mohanty said starting salaries for entry-level workers in biomanufacturing are in the $40,000 to $50,000 range.

For more information about WPI's new Fundamentals of Biomanufacturing evening certificate program, contact Corporate and Professional Education at 508-831-5517 or visitwww.cpe.wpi.edu. The current program runs May 4 to June 25. The school anticipates offering this program again in the fall.

MetroWest Daily News