5 Key Innovations for Scaling Business-Education Partnerships: How One Biotech Company Is Redefining the Employer’s Role

JFF is excited to share five innovative Futurelab+ practices that companies and high-growth fields can adopt to scale business-education partnerships.

Published aug. 10, 2023

For four years, Jobs for the Future (JFF) has partnered with biotech company Genentech, a member of the Roche Group, to expand Futurelab, the company’s innovative corporate social responsibility initiative focused on diversifying the biotech talent pipeline in the schools surrounding its South San Francisco headquarters. The program is a manifestation of Genentech’s commitment to community engagement and health equity and its understanding that cultivating a diverse biotech workforce bolsters its own business objectives to develop cutting-edge medicines and technological breakthroughs that improve people’s lives. This alignment between social and business impact is at the core of Genentech’s holistic approach to education partnerships. It can serve as a template for employers looking to expand career opportunities in their industries.

Since 2015, Genentech has invested $35 million and more than 75,000 employee volunteer hours in its Futurelab partnership with the South San Francisco Unified School District to provide STEM education programming, career exploration, and lab space for local K-12 students. In 2019, Genentech began work on Futurelab+, a multi-million-dollar expansion that increases access to free biotech education and lab equipment, provides professional development to teachers, and fosters industry engagement through employee volunteerism. The new program aims to reach 2 million students, especially members of populations facing systemic barriers to accessing high-quality biotech education, by 2026 through a model that is building equitable career pathways in the biotech industry.

Why are programs like these so critical? STEM and biotech are flush with well-paying jobs at a time when more than half of U.S. laborers do not work in quality jobs and face systemic barriers to career advancement. But finding on-ramps to these positions can prove challenging, especially since just 35% of high schools nationwide offer specialized biotech programs. Initiatives like Futurelab+ expose more learners to career opportunities that pay a living wage and build access to education attainment and skill-building experiences.

Any company can look to the Futurelab+ model to create similar programs providing on-ramps to their industry and opportunities for future economic advancement while filling critical talent needs. JFF is excited to share five innovative practices that companies and high-growth fields can adopt to scale business-education partnerships. For each, we have outlined elements of success reflecting some of Futurelab+’s most effective implementation strategies for employer-led initiatives.

1. Define Career Opportunities in Your Industry Broadly

For many, “biotech” brings to mind employees in white lab coats using microscopes. But only about 10% of Genentech’s thousands of employees are in a bench scientist role. Most other roles are high-growth, high-wage positions that often don’t require science backgrounds. To help young people imagine themselves in these careers, Genentech developed Futurelab+ curriculum resources demonstrating the breadth of jobs and talents necessary to bring a drug from molecule to medicine and showing how various employees with diverse educational pathways and racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds contribute to that process.

Day-in-the-life videos, like this one about Diversity & Inclusion Lead Doran Navarro, help students better understand all the possible careers that exist in biotech—not just those based in a lab. Another resource, the Futurelab+ Career Finder, matches users to potential careers based on their interests and skills.

Element for success:

Engage with or develop career exploration resources showing young learners diverse roles and connections to real-life professionals across your business.

2. Center the Voices and Needs of Key Stakeholders

Genentech interviewed educators across the country to understand better the core challenges to accessible biotech education, demand-driven growth, and reaching students at scale. That bottom-up approach has shaped the development of Futurelab+ and helped Genentech create the resources that best meet the needs of the program’s core audience of educators.

For instance, listening to teacher insight drove the decision for the Futurelab+ curriculum to enhance, rather than replace, existing content and curriculum. The Futurelab+ curriculum is presented as a series of building blocks that science teachers can integrate into what they already teach. Its flexible design and connection to a community of practice, where teachers can share ideas and collaboratively problem-solve implementation challenges, have created sustained buy-in and driven organic growth. Several teachers noted the program design and professional development gave them the confidence to teach biotech lessons and concepts even if their background is in another science discipline, like biology or chemistry.

Additionally, in response to employees’ stated desire to become involved in STEM education initiatives, Genentech created a range of in-person and remote volunteer opportunities for employees to support teachers’ development and students’ career exploration. The Futurelab+ Volunteer Network allows volunteers to pursue choices based on their interests and strengths. Some volunteers are more comfortable working directly with students, while others prefer connecting with educators or working behind the scenes to design and plan activities. The Volunteer Network menu takes these employee preferences into account, offering different options based on what volunteers enjoy.

Element for success:

View educators, your employees, and other key stakeholders as experts and include them in the design process to reflect the communities you serve and authentically meet program participants’ needs.

3. Create a Community of Partners

Companies can help break down stubborn silos between education and workforce systems by acting as intermediaries in multi-partner collaborations. Genentech intentionally brought together the following Futurelab+ partners because each of them brings different areas of expertise. The company encouraged them to collaborate on the same goals, giving partners shared ownership of program challenges and successes and increasing the team’s capacity to think creatively.

Genentech’s Futurelab+ partners and their roles are:

  • Global educational content company Discovery Education leads curriculum development and designed the Futurelab+ website
  • National research firm American Institutes for Research (AIR) leads evaluation framework development and manages the online network for educators
  • Two Bay Area nonprofits, BABEC (Bay Area Bioscience Education Community) and Ignited Education, spearhead teacher recruitment and professional development and provide lab equipment and training to educators
  • As a national education and workforce development intermediary, JFF supports scaling strategies and enhances employee engagement programming

Element for success:

Assemble a brain trust of a diverse group of partners with distinct areas of focus that meet regularly to collaborate on design, planning, and implementation.

4. Make Equity the Goal

Equity should be a key driver in program development and decision-making. For Genentech, creating an open-source curriculum for Futurelab+ reflects the company’s commitment to expanding pathways to STEM education and careers for people from populations underrepresented in these areas. In this instance, Genentech intentionally chose to use technology to promote equity by making in-demand but costly resources accessible to all.

The Futurelab+ Network is open to any science teacher, but resources like biotech lab equipment are reserved for teachers from Title 1 schools. Title 1 teachers in California can receive stipends and participate in professional development opportunities and annual events, like the Futurelab+ Summer Institute and Industry Week on Genentech’s campus.

Element for success:

Apply an equity lens to program design and implementation to be inclusive of all while providing additional resources to educators in schools with a high percentage of students from low-income backgrounds; and use technology and source materials to distribute educational content about industry career opportunities equitably.

5. Play the Long Game

Genentech and the other Futurelab+ partners are continually adjusting to improve the program and reach long-term goals. In one instance, AIR gathered teacher feedback that prompted Futurelab+ to change its professional development offerings to include more hands-on lab training. In another example, teachers said they wanted a space for sharing resources to support curriculum implementation, so AIR and partners helped to create the Futurelab+ Network, where educators can connect directly with each other as well as Genentech employees and curriculum developers.

Genentech has scaled its plan for Futurelab+ slowly and deliberately. While Genentech has a long-term vision to build relationships with schools and science educators across the country and connect more biotech professionals to high school classrooms, the company knows it must establish successful and replicable processes and implementation strategies within smaller pilots before expanding. For that reason, during the 2023-24 school year, Futurelab+ is focusing on building the infrastructure and virtual platform to connect employees with students first, before it formally launches this programmatic offering. Genentech is also phasing Futurelab+’s rollout beyond California, engaging in community-focused discovery and building local relationships as a first step.

Element for success:

Include time for iteration and continuous improvement to prioritize meeting the needs of learners and long-term sustainability.

What Employers Can Learn From Futurelab+

Futurelab+ has shown thousands of learners new career paths and given thousands of educators new ways to incorporate industry-aligned topics and curricula into their lesson plans. Genentech saw an opportunity to use its resources to fill a large equity gap in access to biotech education and future careers. It knew new approaches to program design, implementation, and partnership development were needed to ensure equitable outcomes and make meaningful and sustainable impact. To see how Genentech has approached the design and implementation of Futurelab+, visit futurelabplus.com to continue exploring how to bridge education and employment ecosystems and advance business objectives.