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!




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