By 2013, silk had already become the hot biomaterial. With established success from its applications in tissue engineering, the founding partners at SilkTech Biopharmaceuticals decided to investigate new therapeutic opportunities for solubilized silk proteins.
Why? Well, “in tissue engineering, silk is used as a scaffold to model cell growth in three dimensions,” explained David Infanger, Vice President of R&D at SilkTech. “And since silk is very biocompatible, it degrades with time and you’re left with a complex tissue-like matrix. But that wasn’t what we were after. We wanted to see how cells respond to silk protein when they can internalize it, not simply grow on it.”
From there, SilkTech was born. The company has since developed patented chemistries to make silk fiber water soluble, and has discovered a multitude of biologic capabilities that silk possesses to inhibit disease progression.
Building a pipeline
To help them get there, this startup relies on a steady flow of incoming talent. Their workforce pipeline often begins with internships or externships, which often leed to fulltime employment.
Kristina Conrad, a recent graduate in biology from Carleton College, is a perfect example. She started as an extern through Carleton last winter, where she shadowed Infanger and got a feel for the pace and challenges of research at a startup company. Infanger views this approach as a nice way to determine how adaptable a candidate is and whether or not they’d be a good fit for SilkTech.
Conrad clearly passed since she returned over the summer as an intern through the SciTechsperience program. This time around she was given more projects and autonomy, and was involved in more areas of the company.
“It’s a lot more training than I imagined,” Conrad said, “there are certain protocols that I have to learn and follow to comply with the FDA. But I also have a lot of freedom to pick what I want to do. If I’m interested in cell culture, I can do that. I can also become involved in manufacturing, where our benchtop findings are scaled-up. I can look at a lot of different areas.”
SilkTech currently has 14 employees and has hosted 12 internships, if not more, since it began.
This workforce approach is a win-win, Infanger said: “it gives the students a chance to see what this career path might look like and it gives us a chance to help students learn things, like how to design a new experiment or how to meet the requirements of a regulatory body like the FDA. There’s just not a lot of opportunity for that when you’re taking biochemistry classes.”
Responsibility and opportunity
In 2018, SilkTech secured venture capital funding to start clinical trials on humans suffering from dry eye disease. Infanger credits their FDA approval in large part to their material’s long-demonstrated safety, and the additional support that SilkTech received from their interns.
Many of the projects that SilkTech interns work on ultimately turn into supporting data that SilkTech uses in the patents they submit. And yes, that sounds like a lot of responsibility to put on a student, but from Infanger’s perspective, it’s the most efficient way to help interns learn while seeing if they’re the right fit for fulltime employment.
“The biggest joy that I get from my job is mentoring strong scientists,” Infanger said. “The only way you can foster that is to give them the freedom to think for themselves, and really the only space for that is in an unfettered R&D environment.”
Welcome to the team!
The interns that use these opportunities to make the most out of their experience, show Infanger who the next great employee will be. As such, Conrad has just accepted a fulltime job offer at SilkTech.
“It’s that ability, to think differently and pivot quickly that keeps startups going,” Infanger said. “There are few people who could dedicate themselves like this, and Kristina does.”
September marks the launch of the 9th program year for SciTechsperience! At least 200 internship wage matches are available to small employers on a first come, first hire basis. Get started today at SciTechMN.org.
Are you a returning SciTech student? Send your current transcript to SciTechMN@mhta.org to reactivate your account. Fall internships are available now!