What the hell is Biotech?

This is an age-old question that went unanswered since my sophomore year of high school through my third year of undergrad. I attended a university that is world renown for its research and education in biology for two years before I fully grasped what biotech meant.  Was it a job, an industry, or a research topic? Up until this point, I thought biotech was the industry responsible for building technology, such as microscopes, for biologists. I literally thought that it was shorthand for biological technology. I was nearly one year into my internship at a biomedical research institute (more convoluted jargon… sorry) before I was able to make heads or tails out of it.

A Google search for “biotech” and “what is biotech” provides me with a generic yield: a wikipedia page, wide-casting job postings, and various pages diving into the morals of engineered crops. This was reminiscent of what I found when I Googled the same thing around seven years ago. It’s not surprising that my search didn’t yield me clear answers because the term biotech is very general and ambiguous. However, I did happen to find a post from Investopedia that did seek to explain the differences between biotech and pharmaceutical (pharma) companies. This is actually a really good starting point to look at what biotech is, from a company and industry-centric approach.

Investopedia gives this classic definition of biotech and pharma:

Biotechnology companies use live organisms or their products, such as bacteria or enzymes, to manufacture their drugs. Conversely, pharmaceutical companies use only chemical – and generally artificial – materials to create drugs.

Although this definition is very plain and dry, I think it does a decent job of outlining what you may already know about biotech and pharma. This explanation provides  a common methodology and purpose for both biotech and pharma companies – leveraging one’s knowledge of biology and/or chemistry in order to create a drug. If you look into your medicine cabinet, you’ll likely see bottles of drugs, some over-the-counter (OTC) and some prescribed. Regardless, in order for any of these drugs to get from a chemist’s reaction to your cabinet, it require years of research and regulatory scrutiny in order to be deemed safe for the public. Biotech and pharma companies are the players involved in producing such drugs. Amidst all the research and development, many different experiments are required to accumulate the data necessary to drive a hypothesis into a product. Consequently, this results in creating a lot of different job opportunities. (HOLLA)

For the most part, the term biotech is used as a blanket term for both biotech and pharma. For the context of this post, I’ll refer to both as just biotech. In biotech, there is a clear division between its two primary sectors, academia and industry.  Academia focuses primarily on research through academic institutions in order to further advance understanding of biology. Many advances in basic research are the result of work done by members of academia. Academia labs function through exploring biological phenomenons for the primary sake of research, although this doesn’t discount the fact that research done in academia can’t be used to make money! On the other hand, industry is responsible for conducting research and development on therapeutic targets (say, stroke) in order to produce a drug. The main take away here is that industry primarily functions to make money, whereas academia primarily functions to understand.

Additionally, the ever important sector made of contract research organizations (CROs). CROs are companies that conduct sponsored research. They typically have greater resources and experience in specific experiment formats that a biotech company does not have or wishes to outsource.

Lastly, there is another sector of biotech that compliments academia and industry. I like to call this sector supply vendors. Just like any other industry, biotech’s supply vendors are tasked with procuring, selling, and stocking supplies, from reagents to consumables in order to keep biotech companies running. Products that are sold by supply vendors can be as simple as pipet tips to as complex as TR-FRET kits. The point of this sector is to make money by keeping the industry running. Common theme here?

I hope I was able to break down biotech so that it was digestible. There are still a lot of details and intricacies that I failed to touch upon, but frankly those are just fluffy details that I’m not even too sure of. Even with four years of industry experience now, I’m still learning something new about the industry everyday. In my next post, I’ll give an update on my imaginary drug company’s drug development story along with my insights on where a bachelor’s degree in biology can get you. Until then, thank you for reading this post!




Establishing baseline

I’m now a little over nine months removed from finishing my undergrad career. I’m sitting exactly where I expected myself to be, at home, nursing a gash on my left knee because I slid into third base when I shouldn’t have. In a lot of ways, my entry into adulthood hasn’t changed me a whole lot. I still feel like my personality, values, and overall sense of happiness have been unaffected by post-grad. The biggest changes may be my nine month hiatus from school, sleeping on a regular schedule, and having time to take to care of my health. Nine months ago, I would’ve described myself as:

  • A chicken bake eating machine
  • The sleep-deprived, master of power naps
  • Sprinting dead tired to the finish line

Clearly, there was a pattern of running at full speed during my last quarter of undergrad. I clearly remember that I was trying to do it all before having to start completely new endeavors. It’s taken me twenty-four hours and twenty-six edits to reach this point of this post, and I now realize that a lot has actually changed. Now that I’m taking a sincere opportunity to reflect on my new chapter of adulthood, I’d like to describe myself as:

  • A 9 to 5, salary guy working in biotech
  • Living at home (I have so much to explain, but that’ll take a post itself)
  • Directionless with all the free time

To be honest, those highlights are as universal to any 22-year-old as can be. It encapsulates what I do when I work and what I do when I’m not working.

This is essentially the reason why I am starting this blog.

As I embark through adulthood, I’ll be facing situations where I’m forced to do things for the first time, from a mortgage payment, to getting my car back from being towed, or even learning how to build a fence. The fact is, a lot these learning lessons that I’ll experience are not unique to only me. I guarantee that whatever I face, you too will face it at some point during the second decade of your life. This blog is meant to be a platform for me to catalog my experiences and insights so that you, another twenty-something-year-old, can feel empowered by the fact that you are not alone. I’ve already got quite a few things I’d like to talk about, but until then, thank you for finding your way to this post.