Two Mayo Clinic PhD students are creating “solutions for your solution problem.” These female innovators are developing a self-contained, modular system that eliminates a major pain point among life science researchers: the daily need to change cell culture media.
Sherri Biendarra, a third year developmental biology and regenerative medicine student, and Lindsey Andres-Beck, a second year neuroengineering student, both have felt the burden, personally, of working with cell culture. Any researcher working with cultured cells- animal or plant cells growing outside of their normal environment for research purposes- knows that they can be particularly…greedy. Especially sensitive cell types need to have their media- a liquid chock full of nutrients and other growth supplements that cultured cells need to survive- replaced every day. This means hauling yourself into the lab on weekends, holidays, and during inclement weather just to keep vital research experiments running.
The pair of students set out to “decrease the burden on grad students and post docs who are wanting to do that really exciting research,” explained Andres-Beck. They developed a concept, termed C2 Solutions, to automate portions of the cell culture process, eliminating the need for researchers to be present for the daily media change and freeing up more time to do experiments rather than basic maintenance tasks. Biendarra and Andres-Beck are creating a product that will sit on top of a normal six- or twelve-well cell culture plate, remove old media, and supply fresh media to cultured cells without any researcher needing to be present.
The C2 Solutions concept was developed during a twelve-week course at Mayo Graduate School called Case Studies in Entrepreneurship. The course teaches students about business development and brings a sense of the entrepreneurial spirit to the Mayo student population. Biendarra and Andres-Beck had previously completed all their course requirements, but felt that the class was worth exploring.
“I know I’m leaning away from the standard academic track. You know, you do your postdoc and you get a faculty position. …I’m more interested in kind of learning and exploring my skill sets and my knowledge base to help me make an educated decision about what else…what other area to pursue,” Biendarra explained.
Andres-Beck admits that, “I came in very traditional, like I want to go straight through to being a [Principle Investigator] and now I’m not sure. But I want to explore my options. And regardless of what I choose, these skills will be useful to me.”
From day one, the goal of the course was to create a science-meets-business idea and develop that concept far enough along to answer a certain set of questions by the end of the class. This involved landing on a viable concept, adjusting the concept to meet a perceived market demand, and drilling the idea down to a persuasive two-minute pitch.
The top three student teams from the course competed in the “Junior Angler” division of Walleye Tank, Rochester’s first life science business pitch competition, at the end of the twelve weeks.
“So by the time we had done the pitch at Walleye Tank, we were kind of at the idea of a base concept of what we think a first minimal viable product would be. And at that point, we had accumulated a number of customer interviews as well to back up that this product would be valuable and what we think important factors for consideration and design of something like that would be,” explained Biendarra.
The pair thought they would just take the course, learn about business development, and then move on with their research. “And then we accidentally invented a thing. And it’s really exciting and cool and we want this thing to exist in the world,” said Andres-Beck. C2 Solutions won the student division of Walleye Tank; Biendarra and Andres-Beck will continue to pursue their concept to the next stage.
This entrepreneurial class and Walleye Tank opened up an entrepreneurial community that these female innovators had not known or had access to previously. “It’s been cool to, as a part of this class, just learn about this community I had no idea existed,” Biendarra explained.
The experience allowed the women to meet real, in-the-flesh life science and tech entrepreneurs, people they could potentially turn to for advice and valuable feedback. “Just having access to these people, talking to them, learning what the process looks like. Not just from reading, but from people who are actually doing it, I think was one of the main value adds for this class,” Andres-Beck explained.
While the skill sets these women learned would be of value to any student, they don’t necessarily think that developing a business, or exploring entrepreneurship, during graduate school is right for everyone. The lead scientists, or Principle Investigators (PIs), in each of the women’s labs have a strong entrepreneurial bent, and understood that time spent learning about entrepreneurship was valuable. However, not all PIs have the same view point. Furthermore, to describe the life of a graduate student as “hectic” is an extreme understatement. There are a lot of moving parts to try and balance. The focus is supposed to be on the research.
For now, the goal of both women is to complete their studies and graduate on time. “I think most of the [students at Mayo] are still primarily focused on doing their research to publish papers and get to their postdoc,” said Biendarra.
Mayo might not be pushing straight up entrepreneurship among its students. “But if you’re interested, and you find the community, then you get a lot of support,” explained Andres-Beck.
The institution is, however, recognizing that times are changing. It’s getting increasingly difficult for PhDs to obtain full-time research faculty positions. Mayo Graduate School developed a relatively new initiative, Career Development Internships, which allow students to explore alternative careers in teaching, writing, and industry while pursuing their graduate studies.
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