Harrisburg University of Science and Technology is introducing new graduate-level biotechnology certificate programs it says will prepare working professionals with workforce and leadership skills.
The STEM university’s three new certificate programs can count for credit into Harrisburg University’s Master of Science in Biotechnology program beginning this fall.
The programs include certificates in biomanufacturing in biotechnology, regulatory affairs in biotechnology and medical biotechnology.
The biomanufacturing certificate will prepare students for a supervisory or management role in biotechnology, a pharmaceutical manufacturing company or a contract manufacturing organization.
Harrisburg University’s regulatory affairs certificate will prepare students for leadership positions within the regulatory affairs unit of an organization within the biotechnology industry. The certificate in medical biotechnology will help students enter roles as research scientists or process development engineers in the health care or biomedical device industries.
“These market-driven certificates can directly and positively impact the workforce and economic development needs in biotechnology in Pennsylvania, our region, and beyond,” the university wrote in a press release on Tuesday.
Each certificate consists of two courses every semester with one course online and one offering a hybrid format.
Thomas Caltagirone, president and CEO of Aptagen, a biotech company specialized in creating synthetic antibodies called aptamers, was told by doctors that he may have lung cancer when he was hospitalized for pneumonia in January.
It wasn’t cancer. Caltagirone turned out to have a strain of coronavirus different from COVID-19 known as HKU1. The entrepreneur and neuroscientist continues to fight complications from the virus as his company focuses on its own fight with COVID-19.
Jacobus, York County-based Aptagen is one of many biotech companies using their resources to develop tests and antiviral treatment for COVID-19.
“I have a personal interest in attacking this virus,” said Caltagirone, who is doing what he can to separate his current health issues from his work at the lab. “I want to play a role in the research that could one day be a solution, or at the very least contribute to the general knowledge.”
Aptagen operates in a niche within the scientific community developing aptamers, synthetic antibodies made from strands of DNA, that can bind themselves to targets specified by Aptagen’s clients.
The pandemic’s scale has affected labs around the world, slowing down previous projects and causing staff to focus on contributing to improving testing or developing therapies for COVID-19, according to Caltagirone.
“The race is on and we are taking multiple shots from a microcosmic level by using these molecular tools and I’m sure there are hundreds if not thousands of research labs in academia that are doing the same thing with different approaches,” he said.
Aptagen’s use of the synthetic antibodies places the company in a small niche in the scientific community, which primarily focuses on organic antibodies to fight diseases.
“Aptamers are still considered an emerging technology because it’s still not widely known in the scientific community,” said Caltagirone. “They have so much more promise in terms of development and skill but it’s unproven in the marketplace– there is no blockbuster success we can point to.”
Aptagen’s projects involving COVID-19 include the development of a test to find specific antibodies in the blood, and developing aptamers to find specific proteins on the virus and attack it.
“Obviously the bigger guys with connections in the government will have first dibs at established tech and platforms,” he said. “But if there is no quick solution, there is this trickle-down effect where these unique technologies have a chance to be in the limelight.”
Caltagirone said that his company is currently prioritizing its COVID-19-related projects but is keeping some of his 20 staff members on previous projects taken on before the crisis.
Aptagen expects to bring on a number of interns in the summer and is expanding its laboratory space at its Jacobus headquarters, which Caltagirone said will allow Aptagen to put more of a focus on projects outside of COVID-19.
Investors were not interested in Thomas Caltagirone’s new biotech startup in 2004.
The entrepreneur and neuroscientist wasn’t surprised by the revelation, given that he wanted to start a laboratory in Jacobus, York County, where he would be competing for employees with companies in Philadelphia and throughout Maryland.
But in 2006, Caltagirone did it anyway, planting his company, Aptagen, in the tiny town in rural York County.
Over the 15 years since it was first incorporated, Aptagen has had to be creative with its capital and finding ways to save money without bringing in the regular funds that an investor provides. Caltagirone expected a lack of interest in the new venture because he wasn’t only trying to start a laboratory in a region known for manufacturing, but the product he wanted to create was unknown even to most scientists.
Aptagen specializes in creating aptamers, synthetic antibodies made from strands of DNA that can bind themselves to targets specified by Aptagen’s clients. Aptamers differ from antibodies — organic proteins that fight diseases — in that they can be more effective at targeting certain cells like the tissue of a cancerous tumor, said Caltagirone.
Aptagen is a service-based business that develops aptamers for clients that use the molecules in their own products. For example, if a company were to employ Aptagen to create molecules to attach to a certain disease, the client would then attach something to kill that disease after the aptamers found it.
The company’s clients include other biotech and pharmaceutical companies. Aptagen currently has a $1 million contract with the CDC.
“In this field right now, there is an inflection of growth like a gold rush. We have companies coming to us because they are prospecting and we are applying the picks and shovels,” Caltagirone said. “We are one piece of the entire chain of development of these products—an important piece.”
Creating a laboratory in Jacobus meant that the budding Aptagen could save money on rent but the company was cut off from the east coasts’ largest tech centers that would generally provide the employees for a biotech company like Caltagirone’s.
Aptagen’s solution was to begin a six month internship program to attract students from some of the top colleges in the country to train at the laboratory, many of which have gone on to become full employees of the company.
The Jacobus lab employs 10 people and has three interns. Interns work as scientists at the laboratory, participate in meetings where they present scientific journals pertinent to the lab’s work and meet with Caltagirone on a weekly or biweekly basis.
Interns are given a paid stipend from Aptagen and are provided free housing in the area. The lab’s location may be separated from larger cities, but the opportunities at the lab are enough to interest students to come to the region, said Jacob Shaw, a former intern and current project manager at Aptagen.
“An entry level lab tech position at a large company may pay well, but the work is usually repetitive and can only give you so much experience,” he said. “While at Aptagen, we are always looking for new things to test and our staff strongly encourage branching out to learn new techniques or machinery.”
The offer is particularly interesting to students because of the real world experience it gives them as scientists, making the internship a strong line on any CV.
“When I was an intern, I was assisting in research and development client projects along with grant writing, which is very unlikely for a senior in college,” Shaw said.
The internships have been so successful in training Aptagen’s interns, that Caltagirone has found the young mentees to be some of his best hires over the years.
“I liken this to training the next generation of scientists—we rarely hire from outside,” he said. “I do have two PhDs that didn’t go through the program, but we generally go by the philosophy of hiring from within.”
Aptagen’s team of scientists, mostly in their 20’s, proved to be a strength of the company, according to Caltagirone, who said that his staff is in its prime and is always coming up with new ideas.
While the program has been a driving effort in the company’s success, retention among the interns proves difficult since most students want to continue on to graduate or medical school after their time at Aptagen.
Caltagirone is trying to solve that problem by partnering with universities like Baltimore-based John Hopkins. If Aptagen is able to partner with a university, the company could offer to sponsor its employees to take part time classes to get their Masters or PHDs, while still retaining talent.
Aptagen’s next steps
The past 15 years have been kind to the Jacobus laboratory, which is still managing to grow in size and completes around 10 projects a year.
With its current model as a service based business, Caltagirone said he believes he could grow the lab to employ a maximum of 20 employees. However, he sees an opening in the market for Aptagen to manufacture its own diagnostic or therapeutic products using the aptamers it makes in the lab, which could cause the company to grow much larger than the 20 employee limit.
“Right now we are 100% a service-based company. I would like to shrink that down to 20% custom services and 80% product,” he said. “I am ready to pull that trigger but we need certain things in place and we are working toward that goal.”
Four businesses in Dauphin and Cumberland counties were awarded more than $300,000 through the state’s Keystone Innovation Zone (KIZ) tax credit program this month.
The companies to receive the tax credits in the Harrisburg Market are:
Crimewatch Technologies LLC, a Carlisle-based platform that partners with local law enforcement to send alerts to local residents about nearby crimes, received $56,365.
Return Logic, a Camp Hill-based software company that offers retailers a way to automate their returns and exchanges, received $51,470.
Inbound Marketing, a Harrisburg-based marketing firm specialized in inbound marketing services focused on keeping customers engaged, received $100,000
SMB Computer Solutions, a Harrisburg-based IT business services firm, for $100,000.
The KIZ program, administered by the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, gives a cut of $15 million in tax credits to growing, young-technology companies.
The eligible businesses must be in a KIZ, have been in operation for less than eight years and operate within a technology-oriented business such as advanced manufacturing or bio-technology.
“KIZ tax credits can help foster young technology companies and transition them as their businesses grow,” said David Black, President and CEO of the Harrisburg Regional Chamber & CREDC, the designated coordinator for the Harrisburg Market KIZ. “These tax credits reward entrepreneurial thinking and help foster the growth and advancement of important technology industries in Central Pennsylvania.”
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