GMGI Trains New Generation of Biotech Lab Technicians for Bay State’s Booming Industry

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Gloucester, Mass. was once a thriving fishing community with hundreds of boats that operated out of its historic harbor. But hard times fell on that industry and many veterans descended from generations of fishermen were forced to rethink their career paths – one of those being in biotech.

For the past four years, the Gloucester Marine Genomics Institute has been leading the charge training students for a future as lab technicians in the biotech industry through its Biotechnology Academy. Each of the past four years, GMGI takes 20 students who have gone through an application process through a rigorous nine-month training program, the majority of it hands-on with laboratory equipment, in order to teach the students the necessary skills to secure employment in the life sciences. After six months, those students head to three-month internship programs with biotech and pharma companies in Massachusetts or in the state’s storied universities. At the end of that internship, the students are able to look for work in Massachusetts’ thriving biotech industry.

“We’re about 30 miles from Kendall Square, so there are lots of options for employment,” Christine Bolzan, chief operating officer of GMGI told BioSpace in an interview.

Soon, GMGI will be able to double the number of students it can enroll each year thanks to a multi-year $940,000 grant through the Massachusetts Workforce Skills Capital Grant Program. The grant, part of a $14.6 million package awarded to 54 different institutes in the state, will be used to update equipment and allow the institute to double its annual enrollment within the next few years. GMGI’s grant will be used to build a new lab and classroom. The funds will also allow the institute to purchase state-of-the-art biomanufacturing equipment to train students on the latest available technology, Bolzan said. The new space will create an experience that accurately represents life sciences biomanufacturing environments that students will pursue as career paths.

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Bolzan said the new equipment and space will allow the institute to meet the demands of the industry, particularly those companies focused on cellular manufacturing, gene sequencing and micro-organism engineering, such as Boston-based Ginkgo Bioworks. These companies need employees who have specialized skills and can fill their employment needs.

“It’s expensive to teach biomanufacturing,” Bolzan said and added that the grant funds will help GMGI not only expand their equipment needs, but also the curriculum.

When the expansion is complete, Bolzan said GMGI’s program will be the first of its kind north of Boston. One key factor she noted about the Gloucester location, is the funding will stretch farther than it would in Boston or Cambridge, where the price per square foot is much more expensive. She said the goal at GMGI is to create a workforce pipeline for the industry and, at the same time, catalyze the economy on the north shore.

Bolzan emphasized the dramatic changes the biotech training has had on the lives of its alumni. One student, she said, has gone from “donuts to Dana Farber.” Prior to his training at GMGI, the student worked at a local donut shop, Bolzan said. But, after going through the coursework at GMGI, the student is now a lab technician with Boston-based Dana Farber Cancer Institute.

Bolzan noted that since GMGI began operating the academy, they have an 82% graduation rate and 84% of their alumni go straight to a career in biotech or on to higher education, where many are focused on biology or chemistry.

At the end of the current program’s nine months of training, Bolzan said their students have about 900 hours of lab time under their belt. She compared that to the approximately 1,000 hours that students who go through four-year university programs attain. She said the GMGI program is intense, but rewarding for the students who are able to begin a new career in the life sciences industry.

Training a workforce isn’t the only goal at GMGI. Bolzan said they are also in the midst of establishing an institute that will look to the ocean, the former lifeblood of Gloucester, as a means to drive human health through educational innovation, as well as connect Cape Ann to the rest of the life sciences industry. The hope is that some companies will take advantage of the available real estate and open satellite offices in some of the warehouses previously dedicated to the fishing industry.

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