It’s a phenomenon spreading on college campuses across the country: Organizations formed by grad students and postdoc researchers consulting with businesses in need of help with product development, market analysis and branding.
In addition to developing management and leadership skills, consulting offers valuable experience in analysis, decision making and team-based problem solving that can be a boost in the job market. And postdocs and graduate students can bring a scientific perspective to common questions faced by local biotech and pharmaceutical startups: What is the demand for a new product? What is the competition? What can be done to make a product better and what is the best way to profit from a good idea?
In a recent Nature article, the BALSA Group (Biotechnology and Life Sciences Advising), a successful consulting organization at WashU, is noted as a model for several such organizations.
Started in 2011, BALSA Group has 100 active members and completes about 40 projects a year. More than half of the members are science PhD students, nearly a third are science postdocs and a few are business or law students. Each job lasts six weeks, and each team includes three consultants, a project manager and an adviser. Most of the work involves product development and market analysis for local startups and entrepreneurs in biotech, agriculture and health care. The group also has clients in South Dakota; San Francisco, California; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, says Shivam Shah, who is the BALSA president and a PhD student in biomedical engineering at Washington University.
Since joining the group in 2013, Shah has worked on more than 20 projects as either a consultant or a project manager. Working on multiple projects has given him a chance to fine-tune his management style and learn more about the scientific marketplace, he says. He hopes to land a consulting job soon after getting his degree, perhaps with a healthcare venture capital firm looking for advice about wise places to invest.
BALSA Group frequently consults for Washington University’s Office of Technology Management, which often hires the team to evaluate patent applications from faculty members. Students judge patent applications on their scientific merit and real-world potential.
Consulting is not the only career destination for BALSA Group members. Many work as research scientists, as patent specialists, at companies like Monsanto and IBM, or in academia.