Iowa Bioprocess rolls virtual reality unit

By Chris Anderson

DENNYVILLE, Iowa—A new mobile virtual reality recruiting and training tool that models biotechnology fermentation is making its way around the Iowa countryside this fall in an effort to drive students to the state's new $4 million bioprocess training center.

The new center and an expected $500 million of funds from the state government make Iowa the latest state to jump feet first into the ultra-competitive biotechnology company recruiting derby.

A biotech fermentation virtual reality mobile unit travels to schools across Iowa to spark interest in biotechnology careers. By presenting the processes of fermentation and engaging students with the interactive system, the tour seeks to interest students to come to the Iowa Bioprocess Training Center.
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“Everywhere in the country, biotech companies are being invited to build a plant,” says David Brigham, director of Iowa Biodevelopment. “And all the companies are saying 'who's going to staff it?' Well, there is no exception here.”

Brigham says the purpose of the virtual reality unit is two-fold. First, it travels to high schools across the state to interest students in biotechnology careers. By presenting the processes of fermentation and engaging students with the interactive system, Brigham hopes to recruit students to come to the Iowa Bioprocess Training Center located here. Second, the virtual reality unit can be used as a research tool to model fermentation under a variety of changing variables, including temperature, acidity and oxygen concentrations.

“People looking to develop a product could find out which parameters would give them a good yield, then take it to our pilot plant. This will save them a lot of money and running time to get them in the right window for making the product and taking their results to investors,” Brigham says.

Russell Madsen, senior vice president of science and technology at PDA Inc. (Bethesda Md.), sees great potential for this kind of training device. “If there were virtual reality (training devices) that could train and capture data on employees in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries, there would be plenty of demand,” he notes. His one caveat is whether the fermentation model at Iowa was accurate in its modeling.

In response, Brigham says, “We only need it to be fairly representative of the process since we will spend those first three months bringing it to schools to interest the students in bioprocess.” Once the tour is completed later this year, he adds, the Training Center will begin work on validating the modeling software through real-life fermentation studies.

The mobile unit is just part of Iowa's effort to recruit and train qualified bioprocess workers. At the heart of the strategy is a year-old bioprocess training center developed in conjunction with Ottumwa-based Indian Hills Community College.

Located 18 miles from the college, the 13,500-square-foot training center sits directly across the street from one of the state's largest biotechnology industrial parks. In addition to training future biotech workers, the center provides between one to three hours of continuing training to roughly 400 workers a month. The pilot plant incorporates 150-liter and 500-liter fermentation tanks and all the downstream processing required to run product on a small scale.


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