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SAN FRANCISCO — Coding boot camps have proliferated here, as a way to train workers to get entry-level jobs in the booming tech industry. Now, a local biohacker wants to adapt that model in biotech, with an online education program aimed at teaching job seekers how to pipette and centrifuge in the lab.
The new “biotech school,” announced on Tuesday, will be something of an experiment to test whether unconventional training can help students land jobs in a field where even entry-level positions often demand graduate degrees.
The program is the brainchild of Josiah Zayner, who was once called “the mad pirate-king of biotech.” Zayner got his own biotech training the conventional way — he has a Ph.D. in biochemistry and biophysics from the University of Chicago — but has since become a leader of the movement to do sophisticated science outside of formal labs. He now runs the ODIN, a small Oakland, Calif.-based company that sells equipment for do-it-yourself science.
Zayner said the first run of his new biotech training program will be a “beta test,” and for good reason: It won’t be easy for students who enroll to secure jobs in biotech. Many companies in the sector are reluctant to hire people who don’t have specialized scientific degrees from traditional universities. And broader industry shifts are creating headwinds, too, as a new wave of synthetic biology startups aims to use technology to automate many of the simple tasks that entry-level lab researchers often perform.
The ODIN will foot all costs for the first cohort of about 10 students that Zayner is trying to recruit for the first run of the program. That first group of students will all be based in the Bay Area, and the goal will be to help them land jobs as research assistants and research associates at local biotech companies, Zayner said.
If his beta test succeeds, Zayner said, he’ll aim to expand the program beyond the Bay Area and use a model similar to that of many coding boot camps, in which job seekers don’t pay anything upfront but then pay the program a percentage of their salary after they secure a job.
Zayner said he’s been working with several Bay Area biotech companies to develop a curriculum that fits with what they need from employees, though he said he doesn’t yet have any written deals in place.
For the first cohort of students, Zayner’s program will last four months. They’ll be asked to watch weekly online lectures, read scientific papers, and to try out lab techniques from home, such as running gel or performing a polymerase chain reaction, a method commonly used to copy DNA segments. To make that possible, the ODIN will send students free shipments of pipettes, centrifuges, and other equipment typically found in a basic molecular biology lab.
That’s where Zayner says his school will stand out from many existing biotech training programs, which typically require students to be physically present in a lab for class or allows them to learn information remotely, but not both.
Asked whether students would need a high school diploma or a bachelor’s degree to be prepared to succeed in his new program, Zayner said he’s not ruling out any educational background.
“I think it opens up the door for a lot of people who have lost jobs in manufacturing to learn a new trade,” Zayner said.