The BioTECH Quarterly
Noubar Afeyan Comments on MIT’s New Major and the Evolving Bioengineering Field
Dr. Noubar Afeyan is a managing partner and the CEO of Flagship Ventures, “a leader in creating, funding, and developing new ventures in both life science and information technology sectors.” He is also a Senior Lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and earned a PhD in Biochemical Engineering at MIT in 1987.
Outside of the office, Dr. Afeyan loves spending time with his family, playing basketball, and working on his non-profit endeavors, notably the Armenia 2020 organization that focuses on the economic development of Armenia, his native land.
While in a Flagship conference room overlooking the Charles River and Boston’s skyline, this prolific entrepreneur recalled to BioTECH representative Ali Alhassani his experience serving as a member on the Biological Engineering Division’s Visiting Committee and what he foresees for the budding field of Bioengineering.
BioTECH: How does the industry demand respond to and/or drive the academic development of biological engineering?
Afeyan: When it comes to engineering a microbe, a crop, or a human protein replacement, initially, biologists did this. But in the next generation, you often found that engineers stepped in and did it in much more of a thoughtful, design-oriented, goal-oriented way. I think the industrial demand for people who have biological engineering familiarity is growing tremendously with biotechnology, with medicine, everywhere.
BioTECH: Since the fusion of biology and engineering is such an emerging field of study, do you think those who major in Biological Engineering or minor in Biomedical Engineering will be hotly sought after in the job market?
Afeyan: Sure. There are always frontiers and there are places that are not quite at the edge, where people have been before and are more inland if you will. This [BE] to me is more at the edge of knowledge, at the edge of capability, and innovation usually finds a way to occur at the edges. And I think BE is going to be one of the key edges where companies are going to be formed, and major companies will spend more money.
I have no doubt that many companies will flourish at the intersection of biology and engineering. These companies will be a major employer of biological engineers. I expect that some of these startups will in fact be created by biological engineers.
BioTECH: For those students who have aspirations to start biotech companies, how important is it to pursue a business/management education alongside life sciences and engineering?
Afeyan: I think that familiarity with the idea of what a company does is very important. A company is like a body: it has many different components that have to flow together. So if you take the body apart and study the kidney, the brain, and the heart, it really doesn’t tell you how the body works; it tells you how the organs work. Similarly in a company, it’s really not important to just understand finance or manufacturing or R&D, you really need to know how these things come together.
Now do you have to do a separate major? Can you do it through a minor? Can you do it through a handful of courses or do you go out and work for a while then get an MBA? I think all those things are case-dependent. But certainly I think if you have exposure to those subjects, you’re better off.
BioTECH: Where do you see bioengineering five years from now, both scientifically and commercially?
Afeyan: I think there’s going to be two forms of bioengineering: one is “Bio-something” engineering — Biomechanical, Biochemical, Bioelectrical, Biomaterials, etc., and then there’s going to be Biological Engineering (BE). In BE, I think people are going to require the participants to be fluent in biology and engineering equally so that they will be essentially bilingual.
There’s going to be a whole set of problems that we don’t at all imagine today, the solutions to which will be very valuable. The sign of a burgeoning new field is that no one can tell you what problems are going to be important five-to-ten years from now.
BioTECH: How popular do you see the new BE major becoming, compared to the more traditional majors (EE, ChemE, MechE, etc.)?
Afeyan: I think its going to be interesting to see. Certainly there will be plenty of students who will want to take those engineering disciplines; they are far more established. I think BE over the years will start small but will build its own definition of itself and its own view of the world. Its view will be centered on biology and every thing else will be in service of biology.
I think it will grow over time. People will look ten or twenty years from now, and they’ll say, “That got started in 2005.” But to me, the first five-to-ten years will be a bit of trial and error. It will be exciting to see where the graduates go; I think a lot of them will probably end up doing a graduate degree, but not all. There’s going to be a bunch who are going to find themselves prepared for industry. This is going to be one of those tracks that people see if it fits their imagination, their aspiration. Today I think it will be interesting to see how it emerges and how it plays out.
Engineering Society of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. All
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