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Entrepreneur Invests in Biotech Education for a Stronger America

Tom Wiggans, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Connetics Corp.

Patients are living better lives thanks to drugs created by Tom Wiggans' company.

In addition, thanks to the organization he helped start in 1998 and still chairs – the Biotechnology Institute – more teachers are introducing biotechnology concepts in the classroom. More students are being inspired to understand and appreciate biotechnology. More graduates are pursuing careers in the field. And more entrepreneurs like Wiggans are discovering the satisfaction and fun they can have by supporting the Institute with their time, expertise and financial resources.

Created by the Biotechnology Industry Organization, in which Wiggans has held multiple leadership positions, the Institute educates middle and high school children, undergraduate and graduate students, teachers and the public about the challenges and promise of biotechnology – the use of organisms by man to solve human health, food, environmental and other problems.

The Raised Bar

"For America to remain a leader in life sciences research and product development, we've got to reach students and get them excited about it," says Wiggans. "We owe it to future generations to continue innovation in the life sciences"

Wiggans doesn't think life science education is facing a crisis. But he is concerned about falling behind. As he says, "The bar is constantly being raised."

The Institute has set course to lead in biotechnology education. In doing so, the Arlington, Va.-based organization emphasizes building bridges between the biotechnology industry, educators and students and developing a more culturally diverse biotechnology community.

Edward Lanphier, CEO of Sangamo BioSciences in Richmond, Calif., exemplifies the growing number of biotech entrepreneurs nationwide who recognize the Institute as a strategic asset in the effort to ensure the continued flow of talent to their industry. Lanphier feels fortunate to serve the Institute as a board member and in several other capacities but ranks judging the BioGENEius competition, which Sangamo helps sponsor, as a peak experience. "You get to see and interact with high school students who are very bright, motivated and excited about biotechnology," he says. "These kids are amazing."

Luci Levesque, a biotechnology instructor with the Capital Area Technical Center in Augusta, Maine, came back from hands-on training at the Institute's Annual Education Conference brimming with lab curricula and ideas for her students. She frequently obtains class sets of the Institute's Your World: Biotechnology & You Magazine, which focus on a particular area of biotechnology in each issue. In 2005, Levesque's proposal for students to use electronic notebooks for their lab work won her the $10,000 Genzyme-Invitrogen Biotech Educator Award.

Marcus Fairly was finishing his master's degree in biological sciences when he applied and was chosen to participate in the Institute's Minority and Indigenous Fellows Program, which pairs minority college students and faculty with industry mentors. Fairly now works for his mentor's company, Amgen, in supplier quality management and hopes one day to serve as a mentor.

Passion for Bio

Wiggans' passion for biotech took root while growing up in the pharmacy owned by his father and grandfather in Fredonia, Kan., a small town south of Kansas City. He graduated from the University of Kansas with a pharmacy degree but decided years earlier while he was on a road trip with his parents driving past Eli Lilly Pharmaceuticals on Interstate 70 in Indianapolis: "One day I'm going to work there."

In 1976, MBA in hand, Wiggans moved to Jacksonville, Fla., as an Eli Lilly sales associate and was later promoted to the firm's Indianapolis headquarters. Believing he could have a bigger impact in a smaller company, he joined Serono Laboratories, which specializes in infertility drugs, when it entered the U.S. market in 1980. He ultimately became president of the U.S. company, then managing director of Serono's UK operations in London before leaving the company in 1992.

Next stop was Providence, Rhode Island. Hoping to make a breakthrough in cell therapy, Wiggans joined Cytotherapeutics as COO and director. Two years later, hopes dimmed, he was recruited to Palo Alto to start Connetics Corp. Connetics develops drugs to treat connective tissue and skin diseases. Revenues for 2005 are projected at $185 million.

Through it all, Wiggans has put his time, money and expertise behind the three things that made him the person he is today: biotechnology, education and entrepreneurship.

In 1995, testifying before Congress for reduction of capital gains taxes and improvements to venture capital incentives, he delivered an eloquent portrayal of the contributions of entrepreneurs to American wealth and security. Elected in 2003 to the board of overseers of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, he helps further its mission to secure and safeguard peace, improve the human condition and limit government intrusion into the lives of individuals.

Returning from London in the early 90s, he became active in one of the country's two leading biotechnology trade organizations. Elected to chair one of them in 1994 but believing the industry would be better served by a single strong voice, he led the merger that resulted in the creation of the Biotechnology Industry Organization and remains active on its board to this day.

Industry-Educator Connections

"Tom very deftly makes sure through the board and its deliberations that we are moving forward in the right direction," says Institute President Paul Hanle. "But he does more. He's introduced us to many of the key players in biotech, particularly the investment community. We would never have the kind of access to companies around the country if it hadn't been for Tom's recognized leadership."

Those relationships are critical, not just to fund the Institute but to achieve the mission.

"Almost every one of the companies involved provides volunteer help," says Hanle. "Scientists and managers work with us to convey biotech concepts to teachers, judge brilliant students in the BioGENEius competition, serve as lead advisors on the content of Your World Magazine, go into classrooms in their neighborhoods, present workshops to science education organizations and host teaching labs. We probably have 20 different ways they can get involved."

Biotechnology is a $30 billion a year industry. The world we live in today would hardly look the same without the products it gives us – drugs and vaccines, pollution-eating microbes, foods and biopesticides, DNA fingerprinting – the list goes on. And Tom Wiggans wants to make sure it never stops growing.

© 2006 Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. All rights reserved.

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