MDI Biological Laboratory

A New Generation of Biotech Entrepreneurs

  • March 16, 2023

Collaboration by MDI Bio Lab and Colby College supports young innovators

The Lab’s ongoing educational partnership with Colby College is entering a new phase that goes beyond bench science basics to include 21st century innovation and entrepreneurship.

The dual focus came into sharp resolution this winter when the MDI Bio Lab hosted a cohort of Colby students for laboratory-based coursework and presentations from successful biotech entrepreneurs.

“It was really helpful to combine the hands-on view of the science with the more lecture-based learning,” says Quinn Molloy, a senior majoring in biology and neuroscience who attended the short course, “Biology and Bioentrepreneurship: From the Laboratory to the Market.”

A Maine native, Molloy says he’s been focused on pre-med courses that will lead him to a career as a physician, ideally in this state. But he adds that a grounding in the fast-advancing worlds of applied biomedical science will be essential for his future.

During Colby’s traditional “Jan Plan” study period over winter break, Molloy and other biology-oriented students spent a week in the laboratory of MDI Bio Lab president Hermann Haller, M.D. to gain new perspectives on a future in bioscience.

Students from Colby in the MDI Bio Lab's training labStudents studied the effects of toxins on kidney function with an assay developed in the Haller lab, using one of the laboratory’s lines of transgenic zebrafish as a model for human physiology. They measured proteinuria, which is the leakage of large proteins through the kidney’s filtration system into the urine.

Outside of the lab, they heard from speakers versed in biotech entrepreneurialism, from established hands such as Jeff Packman, a Colby graduate and drug-development business leader, to young pioneers from Orange Grove Bio, a Cincinnati-based venture capital firm.

“We learned a lot about how drug development and therapies go from the bench to clinical trial to being used by patients – and FDA regulations too,” Molloy says. “It’s beneficial just to become more literate in personalized medicine and genomics as they become more of a driving force in biomedical research.”

The short-course program is supported and organized by the Maine IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE). The federally-funded Maine INBRE is led by the MDI Biological Laboratory, with collaboration for research and training at the heart of its mission.

“There’s a whole world of opportunities that exist for really dedicated, bright scientific minds,” says Jeff Packman. He graduated from Colby in 1988 with a biology degree, then moved on to a master’s in business administration and a career in drug development, manufacturing and clinical operations management.

“Whether students pursue Ph.D.s., M.D.s, master’s degrees or elect to go straight into the private sector, there are so many ways to be engaged with R&D that have a huge impact on human health and people’s lives, including ways that aren’t necessarily on the traditional professional or graduate school track,” Packman says.

Now a Colby Trustee, Packman is also a philanthropist who helped establish the college’s Linde Packman Lab for Biosciences Innovation. He argues that education, particularly in the sciences, needs to include a stronger experiential component.

“It’s important to sit in a classroom and take in information; it’s important to sit at a lab bench,” Packman says. “It’s also important to be out there in the universe of places like MDI Biological Laboratory or a start-up biotech company.”

Biotech’s growing prominence among Colby’s offerings helped to propel Sadie Kuhn, ’22, to an early-career biotech job straight out of college – as Research Coordinator for MDI Bioscience. A division of MDI Bio Lab, MDI Bioscience is developing high-throughput laboratory systems that can accelerate the early phases of drug discovery and screening. The enterprise is aided by AI and novel animal models such as zebrafish and C. elegans roundworms.

“Taking this job was kind of a non-brainer,” Kuhn says.

The connection originated in Kuhn’s senior year, when Andrea Tilden, Ph.D., Colby’s Leslie Brainerd Arey Associate Professor of Biology, invited MDI Bio Lab President Haller to give a seminar at the college.

MDI Bioscience's Sadie Kuhn and Jim Strickland at the bench.

MDI Bioscience’s Sadie Kuhn and Jim Strickland at the bench.

That sparked Kuhn’s pursuit of an internship at the lab and, last year, the job offer at MDI Bioscience. MDI Bioscience is headed by Jim Strickland, himself an innovator behind several successful biomed startups.

“I took Jim’s summer course about pharmaceutical development, biotech and entrepreneurship, kind of the place where science meets business,” Kuhn says. “I’ve always been interested in translational research, but I never really had the words for what that was.”

Kuhn says mentorship helped her clarify her interest in bench-to-bedside research. “It took a little bit of time and some guidance from people like Professor Tilden and Professor Haller and Jim to teach me about what that really means. So now that I know what it is, I feel like I’m in the right place.”

And Kuhn – who as a junior and senior captained the Colby Women’s Hockey team — is now stepping into a new mentorship role, in science; she helped to lead the Colby students through their zebrafish experiments in the Haller lab and expects to host more students at MDI Bioscience during an upcoming summer fellowship program.

“I learned that to teach things you need to know them really, really well,” she says. “It made me realize that teaching is something that I like doing, and something I could see doing in the future.”

The winter short course on the Bio Lab campus was led by Tilden, whose recent work focuses on  genomics and bioinformatics, and who is Special Assistant to the Provost for STEM. She says investments such as Colby’s establishment of the Linde Packman Lab are bringing the benefits of bioscience education, training and collaboration to new levels at the college, and beyond.

“We’re pulling together a real biotech, bio-entrepreneurship program, and in collaboration with the MDI Bio Lab,” Tilden says. “One of the major things that we’re discovering — that I’m discovering — is just what an array of opportunities biotech holds for students.”