Biotech Experts Collaborate to Address the Urgent Need for Industry Talent

It is evident that the cell and gene therapy sectors are growing faster than the field of available talent, pressuring start-ups and established players alike.

That was the key driver for the Talent Development Ideation Meeting, held on NJIT’s campus January 31st. NJII’s Biotechnology & Pharmaceutical Innovation iLab hosted more than a dozen leading biopharma executives from business, government and academia in a roundtable discussion to strategize ways of attracting, training and retaining talent to the industry.

NJII’s Senior Vice President in Biopharma Dr. Haro Hartounian welcomed attendees along with co-host Mike Lehmicke, director of science and industry affairs at the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine. While Dr. Peter Marks, the director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), served as the event’s keynote speaker.

The meeting is part of a broader initiative by NJII to implement an industry-wide training and workforce development platform aimed at supporting rapid advances in areas such as cell and gene therapy. These breakthrough technologies are being held up due to a lack of skilled human resources. The workforce training project seeks to address that. 

Mr. Lehmicke explained how the cell and gene therapy market is expected to grow 25% annually for the foreseeable future, and this is placing intense pressure on the industry, considering that it can take upwards of three months of training to get a new hire up to speed.

Additionally, specialized training creates its own conundrum; as professionals become more skilled, they become highly desirable to competitors which leads to high rates of talent attrition, typically within the first three years after initial hire. 

Career opportunities in cell and gene therapy are booming everywhere, Dr. Marks said, and traditional workforce training is insufficient to meet demand. He noted that his agency received about 900 investigational new drug applications last year.

To that end, Dr. Hartounian shared news about workforce development initiatives at NJII’s Cell and Gene Therapy Development Center, which has launched both Master’s and certificate programs in cell and gene therapy, as well as a cutting-edge apprenticeship  program whereby select students are trained for the field of bio manufacturing over an 18-month process.

The Cell and Gene Therapy Center is a multi-million dollar facility that operates in Newark, NJ. The process development and FDA-compliant Current Good Manufacturing Practice (cGMP) manufacturing facility showcases state-of-art equipment that can handle a multitude of projects. NJII’s services are offered at a fraction of the cost of typical contract manufacturing agencies, partly due to its not-for-profit status. 

In May, the center’s cGMP facility is set to open in NJIT’s Life Science and Engineering building on Summit Street in Newark. It will provide clinical manufacturing, packaging and quality assurance for companies of all sizes that have products that are ready for clinical trials. For therapy developers, facilities such as this provide significant de-risking of their development and alleviates the need for large capital investments to be made. 

More important for the January roundtable, the center provides both general and customized training in cell therapy and biologics manufacturing, Dr. Hartounian said. “NJII has pioneered cell and gene therapy workforce development and training in the state of New Jersey.”

NJIT approved the development of the Cell and Gene Therapy Development Center in 2018, with a $5 million initial investment. The center is envisioned as an indication-agnostic center for manufacturing innovation in areas such as cell therapy, and as such, has received nearly $5 million in additional funding commitments from PHC Corporation of North America (formerly Panasonic Healthcare), Pall Biotech, GE Healthcare, SCIEX, The National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals, and Sartorius Stedim Biotech. It has also attracted industry partners, such as Merck, Novartis and Johnson & Johnson, as well as the FDA.

Roundtable attendees discussed a number of other possible solutions to address the shortage of qualified biotech professionals, including enacting industry-wide certification standards, and adapting a workforce development model used in Silicon Valley whereby incubators help train employees at no cost to the employee.. 

To mold more qualified biotech professionals, NJII and NJIT recently created both a Professional Science Masters (PSM) degree program and a professional graduate certificate in cell and gene therapy. The 30-credit Masters program is part of NJIT’s Department of Chemistry and Environmental Science, and the four-course certificate program makes use of the Cell and Gene Therapy Development Center for hands-on training. Both courses launched in January of 2020.

The biotechnology and pharmaceutical leaders who met January 31st will continue working together on talent development issues, and plan to reconvene later in the year. Anyone interested in participating in the discussion, or learning more about the workforce development programs underway or the CGTDC should contact the Biotechnology & Pharmaceutical Innovation iLab at