Editor’s note: Each Wednesday, WRAL TechWire features a story highlighting the NC Bio Jobs Hub initiative. Go to the Bio Jobs Hub for more stories and info on life sciences job opportunities made possible by NC’s workforce training initiatives.
RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – A nonprofit aimed at promoting workforce diversity among the Triangle’s life sciences companies through paid internships is launching this week.
OpenDoors – led by Anil Goyal (CEO of Immvention Therapeutics), Joe Ruiz (president of Enzerna Biosciences) and a “collective of biotech executives, companies and local university students,” is being formed to recruit Black, Latinx and native Americans into the Triangle’s ever-growing life sciences scene.
“As biotech companies, we all want to increase diversity, [but we] generally don’t have the resources to develop in-house outreach programs,” Ruiz said. “OpenDoors addresses this barrier by bringing the students to the companies.”
At present, their numbers remain woefully low.
Blacks represent only 7% of the biotech/biopharma workforce, followed by Latinx at 4% and native Americans at 0.1%, according to a Biotechnology Innovation Organization report cited by the group.
Ruiz said its flagship program, ODSI (OpenDoors Summer Internship, pronounced “Odyssey”) will focus on creating a “pipeline of talent” from local high schools and community colleges into high-growth biotech companies headquartered in the Triangle though paid internships.
The program is already welcoming a “diverse class of interns” from Durham and Wake County public high schools for its inaugural cohort starting this year, he said.
Host institutions already signed on include his own Enzerna, along with Epigenos Biosciences, IMMvention, and the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.
“My goal is to help students have confidence in themselves, to [let them] know that they can accomplish state-of-the-art research techniques they couldn’t have imagined before the internship,” Ruiz said.
Ruiz knows first-hand some of the challenges they face. Of Mexican-American descent, he was raised in Michigan as one of four children. Neither of his parents finished high school. He and his sisters were among the first in his extended family to graduate from college.
“Despite my love for science, the typical career path for those of my ethnic background was the automotive manufacturing industry,” said Ruiz. In 2016, after stints at Harvard and Columbia, he co-founded Enzerna, a pre-clinical-stage company leveraging proprietary RNA editing technology to treat rare genetic disorders.
“It took one high school teacher who encouraged my interest and asked me to enroll in a class that had a research component that started my path in biological research.”
He added: “In the long term, diversity in the executive levels in the biotech sector will ensure that therapies and products that can address health issues that affect their communities are pursued by the industry.”
OpenDoors is being supported by the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, which recently led a statewide consortium of public and private institutions to receive up to $500,000 in the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s $1 billion Build Back Better Regional Challenge, which includes plans for workforce development programs for underserved communities and people.
“The ODSI program is critical, galvanizing, and timely and the Biotech Center is excited to be hosting our first OpenDoors intern this summer,” said Vivian Doelling, Ph.D., vice president of investments with the emerging company development team at NCBiotech.
Its other projects include the Bio Jobs Hub, launched in February 2021, that seeks to match workers with biopharma manufacturers, ag tech companies, contract research and testing organizations and other life sciences sectors.
(C) N.C. Biotech Center