Students get hands-on experience in life-science industry

Job training • Granite Technical Institute helps guide them into the work force.
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Casey Van Wagoner is a success story for a program that aims to bolster the work force for the state's life-sciences industry.

Van Wagoner was one of the students from local school districts who converge on the Granite Technical Institute in South Salt Lake to get hands-on experience in life sciences and other technology areas. The idea is to get the students interested in taking jobs in the industry, thereby giving companies access to a ready work force and helping build that area of Utah's economy.

It worked for Van Wagoner.

"They have equipment you have in the real world," said the 18-year-old who started in the program while at Cyprus High. "It's not just that you read a book and you memorize things. It's you're actually in the lab. You're actually extracting DNA."

The program led to an internship and now a job for Van Wagoner at Symbion Inc. Symbion is one of the companies housed in the same building at the Granite School District complex by BioInnovations Gateway, a year-old program that incubates biotech and medical device companies and acts as a contract researcher for the life sciences industry.

Intermountain Healthcare, the state's largest medical services provider, recently became a partner of the BioManufacturing Program at the Granite Technical Institute. Intermountain supports the program as part of its community outreach but also to help it bring to fruition ideas doctors, nurses and others have for medical devices.

"One of the reasons we want to collaborate with BioInnovations Gateway is that they've set up a system where they can help design and potentially prototype some of these inventions we're coming up with," said Michael Mayer, Intermountain's director of invention management. "That's important to Intermountain for two reasons: One is about having the invention and having someone to help crystallize those ideas and, two, it also helps support the community and the education of students by giving them real-time projects to work on."

The program with Intermountain will concentrate on biomedical devices and biotechnology developments, said BioInnovations Gateway Executive Director Suzanne Winters.

The BiG program is open to students from six school districts in the Salt Lake City area, she said, with student teams having access to laboratories, computer-assisted design equipment and a machine shop for making prototypes.

She said most students take core classes at their high schools and then go to Granite Technical Institute for a minimum of two periods a day.

"The equal goals of BioInnovations Gateway are preparation of the work force of this industry and incubating and growing life sciences startup companies," said Winters.

Salt Lake Community College students also can participate and earn credits toward a degree.

Funding for the facility comes from U.S. Department of Labor grants, Granite School District and the state-funded Utah Science Technology and Research initiative.