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RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – When Madison Ponder was nearing the end of her graduate program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, her final challenge was to serve an internship in a field related to her studies in the Carolina Health Informatics Program.
Responding to a posting by the North Carolina Biotechnology Center’s Industrial Internship Program (IIP), Ponder was attracted to an opportunity listed by Durham precision health startup Higgs Boson Health.
She applied and landed what turned out to be even more than an internship at the growing NCBiotech portfolio company, combining her interest in patient outcomes with data-driven software development and implementation. Today, she is one of Higgs Boson’s full-time implementation managers.
“I went into my master’s thinking I would end up working in state government health,” said Ponder, who previously worked as an EMT. “I am happy I chose this path because it has given me a different perspective. This was not at all what I was picturing for my career, but I have hit the spot where I am doing the things I like to do, such as data analytics.”
Higgs Boson’s digital health platform improves surgeon and patient monitoring and engagement before and after surgery through its Manage My Surgery app.
“We are really small and are required to be involved in a lot of stuff,” Ponder pointed out. “I jumped in at the end of April and was going to meetings with clients immediately. It was exciting and interesting because I was trying to learn so much in a short period of time.”
According to David Rosenthal, NCBiotech’s program manager for emerging company development, IIP serves two purposes.
As part of NCBiotech’s ongoing workforce development efforts, IIP links students with internships that provide real-world work experience and a career path into the state’s life sciences sector.
The program also assists participating companies in the hiring of interns who can assist in a variety of areas including product and business development.
“In the smaller companies, most of the people in the company are on the science side,” explained Rosenthal. “They often don’t have a person to do a market analysis. An internship gives the companies access to a skillset outside the range of the company.”
For Higgs Boson CEO Rajeev Dharmapurikar, IIP provides his small company an opportunity to reach potential interns with a direct interest in the company’s work in patient health data.
“The IIP applicants want to get an understanding of biotechnology and the startup scene in North Carolina,” Dharmapurikar pointed out. “Through this program, the chances of finding the right kind of people are better because you get applications from all over with all kinds of majors and all kinds of interests.”
One major benefit of the program is that it connects interns with opportunities to gain hands-on experience they might not get in a larger company with global name recognition.
“Some of the companies in IIP are doing really interesting, cutting-edge things,” said Rosenthal. “It is great for interns to get connected with these smaller companies, so they can work directly with the chief scientist and CEO. Internships are all about work experience and real-world experience.”
“A lot of people want to intern for a brand name, but the students they attract have a different purpose,” added Dharmapurikar. “In a smaller startup they get to dabble in several things.”
During her internship, Ponder created the content and patient-reported outcomes (PROs) used in Manage My Surgery for bariatric surgery. She also developed clinician reports to illustrate how patients use the app and created a new reporting structure to help the Higgs Boson team assess outcomes more easily.
Program makes finding interns easier for smaller companies
Since it launced IIP in 2012, NCBiotech has funded 105 internships across the state. To participate in the program, companies apply for grants of up to $3,000 each. The internships are in a variety of fields, including business development, engineering and research and development.
“While NCBiotech helps promote the internships and collects student applications, the companies make the hiring decisions,” Rosenthal explained.
By publicizing these internship opportunities, smaller companies reach candidates who may have not heard about them otherwise.
“By publicizing the internships, NCBiotech attracts a lot more students than we would on our own,” said Dharmapurikar. “The fact that they give you a little bit of financial assistance is also helpful for smaller companies like ours.”
For the 2021 spring and summer internship program, 28 companies applied for the IIP grants. Interns are hired for a minimum of 120 hours. All grant recipient companies are required to submit a final report documenting the intern’s work.
Besides the internship funding, NCBiotech also awarded Higgs Boson a $250,000 Small Business Research Loan a year ago to enhance Manage My Surgery, and to begin nationwide sales and marketing of the cloud-based platform.
The company’s name derives from a fundamental discovery in particle physics, named for Scottish physicist Peter Higgs, who wrote the first paper explicitly predicting the subatomic boson particle in 1964.
The company explains its name this way on its website: “Just as the Higgs Boson particle is central to the universe we believe that health is fundamental and critical to life itself. Thus, we named our company ‘Higgs Boson Health’ when we began our quest in 2016. With that, we set out to build software to empower patients, families, and clinical teams to aid in achieving the best possible outcomes along their interventional or surgical journey.”