iJOBS Simulation: Consulting Case Study

By Juliana Corrêa-Velloso

Among the career paths for STEM PhDs, Life Science Consulting is an attractive possibility for many students and postdocs. However, even amongst the most enthusiasts about this career, the question “what exactly does a consultant do?” can be challenging to answer. On July 7th, iJOBS hosted a workshop led by Sidnee Pinho, Chief Operation Officer of Clearview. Attendees learned about the core skills of a consultant and were guided through a case study. If you are interested in knowing more about this career path, the good news is that as PhD students and postdocs we already have most of the skills needed for Life Science Consulting.

Currently, according to Merriam-Webster dictionary, a consultant is a person who facilitates change and provides subject matter expertise; who offers advice, an expert1. In the pharmaceutical and biotechnology fields, consultants are hired to provide companies with a recommendation about business decisions and market landscape analysis. To get to the solution, consultants usually work in a team, in which they coordinate the strategy, the approach and the communication with the client. This versatility of tasks assignments is one of the main peculiarities of professionals in consulting. Indeed, as Sidnee Pinho explained, in either big management consulting firms or small boutique companies, consultants wear many heats over the life of a project.

Screenshot of Sidnee Pinho’s presentation.

As a project leader or a collaborator in a team, some key responsibilities will always be present throughout a career in consulting. Sidnee Pinho explained how each one of the following duties is important in the daily routine of a consultant:

  1. Problem definer: What is the question the client needs answered? What is the scope of the analysis? At the beginning of the process, it is crucial to understand the client’s needs and define the approach for the solution.
  2. Project manager: Once the project scope is defined, the next step is to develop a work plan. Establishing deadlines, assigning tasks and keeping track of the progress is the backbone of the project.
  3. Data searcher: PhDs are well familiar with the importance of good quality data for a project. Learning how to search for respectable scientific literature and interpret results from the bench is one of the many lessons of a PhD. Similarly, consultants need to collect all the information relevant to the project on which they are assigned. However, rather than a deep and specific analysis typical in academia, the industry requires a different approach. Instead, by doing quick strategic research, consultants become experts in several fields (financial, clinical, basic science, market) necessary to finish the project.
  4. Thought process organizer: Well-designed frameworks are essential to guide the team towards the answer. By being in line with the client’s needs, a good framework helps define the metrics and criteria used in the analysis. 
  5. Quality controller: When working with data, accuracy is critical for credibility. All research should rely on reputable sources and be in a time frame relevant to the project. As expected, validating the results is necessary before taking the next step on the project.
  6. Storyteller: Knowing how to convey a message is a gold-standard skill for any communicator. Depending on the audience, two strategies can be used. Business educated audience with limited time availability requires a “Top-Down” method. A straightforward presentation focused on the conclusion will deliver the expected message. On the other hand, an audience naïve to the subject or with controversial opinions will benefit from a “Bottom-Up” method. By focusing on the key underlying assumption that drove the conclusion, consultants increase their chance of communicating their message.  
  7. Relationship manager: As in any commercial arrangement, client satisfaction requires close attention. Learning how to manage the client is key to most careers in industry.

As a PhD student or postdoc, it is impossible to read all these assignments and not feel that this description is similar to our daily life in the laboratory. Defining a question, establishing a methodology, planning your project, collecting and communicating your results to different audiences (lab meetings presentations, scientific meeting talks, writing papers) and most importantly, managing the relationship with the client, or in this case, colleagues, collaborators and the PI. Through years of gathered experience, STEM PhDs already have most of the transferable skills necessary to pursue a consulting career. Understanding the varied roles required to succeed in this field, STEM PhDs can plan the transition by improving their technical abilities and soft interpersonal skills. With more than 25 years of experience in the Life Sciences industry, Sidnee Pinho shared some advice for future consultants that will help not only in the project execution but also in ensuring that the client expectations are exceeded:

  • To get to the root cause of issues, constantly question everything with the simple question, “But why?”. Be comfortable in asking and answering this question.
  • Ultimately, clients will rely on the consultant for the expert opinion. To feel comfortable in this position, you need to understand the project’s specificities, such as the scientific background, market analysis, competition, business models, financial valuation, etc. In other words, be the “expert.”
  • Do not be afraid of failure.  Every experience is a learning opportunity.

After this helpful and informative overview, attendees were invited to work in teams on a project simulation. The project assignment was as follows:

 “Company X has the opportunity to pursue a long-acting version of prednisone, which is a steroid used to treat morning stiffness associated with rheumatoid arthritis (RA).  Company X has absolutely no experience in the RA market and has no assets in rheumatology generally”.

One complication framed the situation:

“The company has many potential development opportunities and is not sure if they should pursue this long-acting steroid or something else.  They will only pursue this opportunity if they believe they can make $200 million in topline US peak year revenue“.

Groups should provide a recommendation to the following questions:

“Should company X pursue this development opportunity of a long-acting steroid? Calculate the $ opportunity and summarize why or why not in 3 bullet points.”

Attendees were divided into three groups and had one hour to work on the case. The first challenge was to select the necessary information from the extensive supporting material. Groups had access to the RA clinical background, RA prevalence in the US from the past ten years, RA clinical diagnoses criteria, pharmacological alternatives and criteria for steroids treatment, opinions from experts in the field and past and future projections of the RA market. As a PhD, it is difficult to “ignore” data. We tend to look at every piece of information before moving forward on the process. Keeping in mind the advice provided by Sidnee Pinho, the group quickly learned how to select only the relevant information to the case and started debating the possible recommendation.

Surprisingly, after one hour of debating, each group came up with a different revenue number and opposite opinions about the drug launching. Sidnee Pinho explained that rather than the “correct solution,” the structure of the process was more important than the outcome. How did the groups interpret the data? What was the rationale behind the approach? For example, the information about treatment duration and drug dosage per day was missing in the supporting material. Depending on how the groups filled this gap, the outcome was different. As we learned, instead of rushing to get to an answer, it is important to ask critical questions and provide structured and strengthened solutions. In fact, in real life, consultants constantly need to make decisions with limited data and time. In these cases, aiming to understand the problem and getting to the root of it by asking “But why?” helps to provide a structured solution to the client.

This workshop was an excellent opportunity to learn how to tackle a case in Consulting and learn valuable advice from an experienced consultant. As we can see, the parallel between Life Sciences Consulting and a STEM PhD is clear. Students and postdocs will find several opportunities to sharpen their transferable skills during the academic journey and shorten the gap between industry and academia. I invite you to look at your PhD from a new perspective and answer the question: how many of these hats are you wearing already?

References:

  1. “consultant.” Merriam-Webster.com. 2021. https://www.merriam-webster.com (18 May 2021).

This article was edited by Senior Editor Brianna Alexander.

How can a PhD prepare you to start and run a company?

By Juliana Corrêa-Velloso

Across the world, the creation of start-ups has become more common. More specifically, within Universities, the Biotech innovation field has been stimulated by the presence of early-stage business development facilitators, like tech-transfer offices and start-up incubators. Although more STEM PhD students and postdocs have been pursuing an entrepreneurial career path, the transition from the bench to the boardroom of a company is still unclear to many. For example, what is the skill set necessary for such a transition? On November 10th, iJOBS hosted a workshop led by Dr. Garry Cooper, CEO and co-founder of Rheaply. Dr. Cooper shared his experiences in the process of starting his own company and enthusiastically encouraged PhD students and postdocs to explore the entrepreneurial side of business. By giving valuable advice and sharing his first-hand experience, he shed some light into the world of the entrepreneur.

Dr. Garry Cooper, CEO and co-founder of Rheaply (Image credit: https://www.uschamberfoundation.org/bio/garry-cooper)

In general, business ideas aim to fulfill a specific need. That said, Rheaply’s concept is simple and, most important, necessary. As Dr. Copper explained at the event, Rheaply started as virtual market of physical assets and laboratory research materials which stemmed from his observation of a problem. Dr. Cooper’s initial observation dates back to when he was a PhD student at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. While he was working on Parkinson’s disease drug discovery, he noticed a pattern within his department regarding the availability of physical laboratory assets. Some departments had a surplus of under-utilized materials, whereas other departments routinely purchased new materials without any knowledge of the available surplus. Motivated by helping his peers, Dr. Cooper started placing the excess items in a cart and pushing it around the floor. With a simple and smart solution, he redistributed unused spare materials to other laboratories. The success of “the cart” was so significant in Northwestern’s community that even years after his departure, Dr. Cooper kept receiving emails asking, “Where is the cart?”

After his postdoctoral training, Dr. Cooper worked as a life science consultant, where he gained practical experience in the business side of Biotech companies and the Healthcare market. With this broadened view of the market, Dr. Cooper and two co-founders fundraised for their new idea: Rheaply, which is a combination of the words “research” and “cheaply.” Within just 4 years, the company had facilitated the management of internal assets by intermediating the exchange of unneeded resources among and between several world-leading organizations. Imagine Google having a surplus of office supplies that would be a perfect fit for a small local company or a university? How many laboratories around the country have underused or outdated equipment that would be more useful for other laboratories or departments? Rheaply is the bridge between those two ends. Using an award-winning resource platform, Rheaply helps organizations in technology, government, retail, healthcare, and higher education to buy, sell, trade, donate, and rent resources within and between one another. By harvesting their internal and external resources before making any purchasing decisions, organizations can save money, improve efficiency, increase sustainability, and boost their collaborations and network.

As we can see from Dr. Cooper’s experience, the entrepreneur ideation process is quite similar to the well-known scientific method: observing a problem, setting a hypothesis, and testing the solution. But what about the additional hurdles of actually starting and running a company? Can a PhD prepare you to have a corporate level position in a company? The short answer is yes. Scientists can and should run companies. That said, there are of course, some trainings and adjustments that can maximize your chances of success. According to Dr. Cooper, you need to know how to leverage your transferable skills, tailor your journey, and be intentional about what you are doing. Most importantly, he emphasized the necessity of refraining from the temptation of comparing your path and achievements to someone else’s. Instead, he stated that you should focus on defining and accomplishing your own goals.

“…you are in your own journey. Be intentional about your journey and do not compare yourself with others.”

(Dr. Garry Cooper, CEO, and co-founder of Rheaply)

Through years of gathered experience, PhD professionals likely already have the necessary transferable skills to sit in a company’s boardroom. This includes: 1) Problem-solving abilities and critical thinking which can lead to executive decisions and strategic planning, 2) Hypothesis-driven questioning and experimentation which can result in well-executed business concepts, 3) Data collection and interpretation which are necessary for understanding the company’s progress and which can inform well-grounded decisions, and 4) Written and oral communication which are essential to conveying a message with clarity and objectivity.

Although these skills may already be familiar to those who have an academic background, Dr. Cooper acknowledged that showcasing them in the corporate environment is a frequent struggle. You will face several opportunities to apply your knowledge and PhD training, therefore, do not hesitate to show them. “If you don’t tell the world how great you are, no one will notice the value that you were building up for all this period.”

One necessary adjustment that can help PhDs build their confidence is changing the way that they approach problems. Instead of finding answers only in papers, Dr. Cooper highlighted the importance of reaching out to others and actually asking for help. “For academics that are starting a company, the crucial thing is not trying to do it all by yourself,” he stated. The research method is similar, but instead of looking into a paper, you are going to reach out to someone directly. Moreover, it is important to be specific about what the problem is that needs to be solved and to carefully choose who you consult for help. By connecting with others, you become more conscious of your business needs and realize the effectiveness of openly communicating those needs. From his experience as a consultant, Dr. Cooper learned another important lesson that he shared with attendees: do not reinvent the wheel. Identify the problem, find someone that went through a similar situation, and ask for help.

Reaching out to others will help you with the gold-standard action for transitioning from academia to the corporate set up: networking. In addition to all its well-known benefits, networking can help you to deal with the unique struggles of entrepreneurship. “No one will actually know what you are going through unless they have your exact perspective.” By building a network of business-savvy scientists, you maximize your chances of both getting and offering help. Besides, it can potentially increase the opportunities for funding your idea. Most of the time, the initial funding-raising process starts with an expanded network of family and friends. Other good supportive resources are Techstar, Y Combinator, a16z, Sequoia, First Round Capital, and all of Paul Graham’s materials.

Beyond showcasing your transferrable skills, communicating your ideas and expanding your network, considering an internship or shadowing experience is also good place to start. By experiencing the routine of a start-up or other corporate environment, you can diversify your resume and have a taste of the real job experience. For that purpose, iJOBS Phase 2 is a perfect fit. In this phase of the program, trainees can shadow a professional in their area of interest as part of an externship organized by iJOBS. In addition to learning about the field, shadowing professionals could help you to identify areas of your resume which can be improved to make you a more qualified job candidate. The idea is not to mimic someone else’s experience, but to let their experiences serve as an inspiration and guide to your own journey. Dr. Cooper explained that, from the perspective of a capital investor or consulting firm, funding or hiring a professional with a PhD has two sides. On one hand, you will be seen as smart, a fast-learner and an independent professional. On the other hand, regarding the business and market literacy, you will be seen as naïve. If you have any knowledge or activity that can lessen this gap, Dr. Cooper recommended highlighting them. Rather than focusing on papers or any deep knowledge in one specific topic, emphasize alternative activities that will make you stand out.

Thankfully, transforming sound business ideas into fruitful companies has become more common. Moreover, in the biotech innovation field, all available business development assets, like start-up incubators, accelerators, and tech-transfer offices, are powerful tools for that purpose. As we progress through the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of science and applicable biotechnology is unquestionable. That said, in the same way that a new idea or technology needs to be prepared to be marketable, it is important that as scientists, we learn how to make our transferrable skills marketable, a feat that will help us break into an array of blooming fields, including business/biotech and entrepreneurialism. This workshop was a great introduction to how STEM PhDs can prepare to go beyond the bench and join the C-suite executives!

This article was edited by Junior Editor Zachary Fritz and Senior Editor Brianna Alexander.

Consulting and Science Communication: “GRO Your Career 2020 Industry Conference” Day 1 Session 2

By Natalie Losada

Day 1 Session 2:

The second session, The Nuts & Bolts of Consulting, included three panelists who discussed consulting responsibilities (before and during the pandemic), transitioning from a Ph.D. to consulting, and some quick questions at the end. Panelist Andrea Campi works as a consultant at Prescient Healthcare Group. This company was interested in a preclinical stage product she had developed during her Ph.D. in biomedical engineering that was later approved right before she defended.  The second panelist, Bill McCormick, joined the life science consulting team at Qral Group as a short term plan, but loved their company environment and biotech focus so much he is still working there four years later.  Final panelist Kevin Hartman originally focused his efforts on the research side of science until consulting caught his eye and made him realize he enjoyed the business side of science a lot more.  He is now a consultant for ClearView Healthcare Partners.

Panelists for Day 1 Session 2.  Photo taken from a screenshot of the GRO-Biotech Conference moderator’s slides.

Consulting Responsibilities (Before and During the Pandemic)

“Sometimes 90-110% of your day is spent with the clients”, said Mr. McCormick.  Generally, a consultant’s days are variable. Consultants will often have a mix of bigger and smaller clients with short-term or long-term relationships. With each new client, a consultant must learn about the company, their needs, and the problem they need solved.  Similar to graduate school, this requires gathering data, building the story around the problem, and presenting the plans and solutions to higher-ups.  A science background helps understand the clients’ problems faster and more robustly. However, a Ph.D. is not always required.  Consulting is about asking questions to/for the client to create structure around an unstructured problem.

Consulting is about creating structure around an unstructured problem.

Mr. McCormick

Depending on the company, consultants sometimes travel to meet current or potential clients, which has been difficult during a pandemic for some, like Dr. Campi.  Her company struggled to transition to social-distanced events because much of their intelligence gathering for clients happened at conferences.  Some like Dr. Hartman and Mr. McCormick had surprisingly easy transitions since their companies were accustomed to online meetings even before the pandemic.  All the panelists expressed gratitude towards their companies’ dedication to their employees during these challenging times.  Dr. Campi said her company reminds employees to be mindful when planning meetings. Cooperation is key now that everyone has been introduced to each other’s personal lives more than ever expected.  Dr. Hartman’s company also tries to avoid employee burn-out by requiring them to choose two nights per week where they are “out of work” by 5 pm – phones off, you’re done.  When looking for a job, I recommend finding similar companies that treat each team member as a valuable part of the machine and respects work-life balance practices.

Transitioning from a Ph.D. to Consulting

Dr. Hartman suggested demonstrating something “non-academic” on your resume that is more business-related, e.g., participating in an internship outside of a lab setting. 

Life science and biotech consultants can be hired from diverse research backgrounds.  The critical qualities employers look for don’t include expertise is a specific topic; they look for an ability to work with a team, dig into a problem to tackle a challenge, and ask the right questions.  As Mr. McCormick said, they are “looking for a mindset” more than anything.  Your resume can and should speak to your mindset by showing the employer how you’ve developed the mindset and where you’ve practiced using it.  Dr. Hartman suggested demonstrating something “non-academic” on your resume that is more business-related, e.g., participating in an internship outside of a lab setting.  If you’ve come straight from academia, the employers don’t expect you to understand all the nuances of the consulting job.  They provide thorough training after hiring and want you to learn fast and think on your feet.  However, training is usually ongoing in your career as you learn about new client companies and products.

In fact, during the interview process, you’re usually given a case study to evaluate on the spot…

Luckily, there are ways to “study” for the position and hone your skills to become a more competitive candidate.  There are online resources to provide case studies that you can practice working through to determine solutions.  In fact, during the interview process, you’re usually given a case study to evaluate on the spot because they want to see your thought process and problem-solving methods.  Another way to prepare to be a consultant would be using LinkedIn to talk to consultants from different companies to learn the nuances and see which company might be a better fit.  This is important for any job in any field – use LinkedIn as a research tool, not a “job-begging” tool.  Your networking will be more fulfilling and more comfortable that way. 

Attendee Questions

  1. Can international students become consultants?
    • Depends on the company.  Be ready to discuss this with the company.
  2. If you only have a B.S., will certificates from  Coursera help?
    • Certificates in fields that will specifically complement your career interests is a great idea.  It would be helpful to earn a Coursera course certificate before you graduate, but it’s not required.
  3. Most memorable project?
    • Mr. McCormick: Joined a project at a later stage and witnessed all the exciting approvals, distributions, and ultimate success as he played his part along the way.
    • Dr. Hartman: Had a very open-ended problem to develop a corporate strategy with a major client.  It felt nerve-racking to be precise and correct, but it felt so impactful.
    • Dr. Campi: She realized a laid-back client of hers had a crucial finding that she had to bring to their attention to develop further and become a vital thought partner.

Life science and Biotech consulting can be very rewarding or a fun challenge.  And much like the other topics during this conference, it’s the type of career that grad students don’t immediately consider pursuing.  A company may appear to consist of a CEO and a scientist who makes the products, but there are so many critical roles within and outside of a company that help get products developed, funded, sold, marketed, supported, redesigned, and expanded upon.  More importantly, with an advanced degree and a STEM background, you are prepared for any career at every step of the product or company development.

This article was edited by Junior Editor Janaina Cruz Pereira and Senior Editor Samantha Avina.

iJOBS Workshop — The Many Hats of Consulting

Written by: Paulina Krzyszczyk

Edited by: Huri Mücahit and Tomas Kasza

On February 1st, I attended the iJOBS-sponsored consulting workshop led by Sidnee Pinho, the U.S. Chief Operating Officer of Prescient Healthcare Group. The workshop opened up my eyes to a field that I had previously poorly understood, and therefore not seriously considered as a potential career path. I am very glad that I attended, as I learned a lot about this exciting field. It also may be of particular interest to our readers that the consulting world is generally open to hiring fresh PhDs!

Sidnee Pinho began the workshop by defining what a consultant does, and all the hats that they must wear. A consultant is, “a person who facilitates change and provides subject matter expertise; someone who provides advice”. In this workshop, the scope of consulting was limited to agencies that work with pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, their clients, to help them make key business decisions. This simple definition was then expanded to include the many different hats that a consultant must wear. They must act as a:

1) Problem Definer – Define the scope of the project. What is the specific question that the client is expecting the consultant to answer?

2) Project Manager – Develop a work plan for the project. How long will the project take? What tasks will be completed, and when?

3) Data Searcher/Creator – Obtain primary and secondary research from key opinion leaders and published sources. Schedule interviews and check the credibility of any data that is acquired from other sources.

4) Thought Process Organizer – Develop a framework or methodology for using the data to lead the team to an answer. Define key criteria that the client is looking for, turn those into questions that can be answered by key personnel, and quantify all data obtained using a scoring system that assigns weights to the client’s priorities.

5) Quality Controller – Identify accurate data to maintain credibility of the consultant agency’s work. Is the data current and relevant to the demographic at hand? Are the statistics specific and do they come from a reputable source?

6) Storyteller – Present ideas in a way that suits your audience (top-down vs bottom-up approaches). Is your audience interested in all of the details that led to your answer, or do they prefer to hear the main conclusions with key reasoning and supporting evidence?

7) Relationship Manager – Clearly and efficiently communicate with the client to update them on the project. At meetings, remind them of previous work, the purpose of the current meeting, and key project goals. Tie this into the next steps of the project moving forward.

 

Roles of A Consultant

Once we understood the broad set of responsibilities that a consultant must fulfill, we were given the task of taking on a consultant’s role in the following simulation:

Company X is considering releasing Product X, a long-acting steroid, for rheumatoid arthritis (RA), however they only want to proceed if the revenue can reach at least $200 million.

We were given a packet of information with data and statistics, such as RA prevalence, the difference between acute and chronic RA, treatment options and regimens, etc.

As I began sifting through the slides, one of the first things that came to my mind was, “Too much data!” This proved to be a major challenge – determining which data was important, extraneous, or reliable, especially as we were trying to simultaneously learn the background information about the disease. For example, we had to determine if we should focus on statistics regarding chronic or acute cases of RA, or both, and also read over physician opinions on their likelihood to adopt Product X over other treatment options. To complicate things even further, many of the statistics were given as ranges (e.g. 30-40% of RA patients are on steroids at a given time). As we began discussing the data within my group, I also realized that each person had slightly different interpretations about the exact meaning of each statistic, as well as its credibility or relative importance. This led to some interesting discussions at our table, as we wanted to determine the best data to use for our final revenue calculation.

Data

At the end of the day, our task was seemingly simple: “Is the product a “go” or a “no go”, based on whether or not it is likely to yield a revenue of over $200 million”. With this seemingly simple question, we got opposing answers. Some groups said “Go”; however others said “No Go”, and the range of revenue estimates that we came up with was vast, from approximately $100 to 400 million. This was due to the fact that each group had a different interpretation of the data and the consequence was a more or less conservative final revenue estimate.

After debriefing the exercise with Sidnee Pinho, we realized our experiences reflected the common obstacles that consultants must tackle, such as which data to use and why. Furthermore, the final answer is rarely a, “YES – go for it!” or a, “Definitely No!, but more so falls within a spectrum based on a, “Yes, if…” or a, “No, unless…”, phrasing.

Overall, I would highly recommend this workshop to anyone who is even slightly curious about consulting. The dynamic hands-on activity gave participants a taste of the challenging tasks that consultants must perform daily. I most enjoyed the complex thought processes required to complete these tasks. I also recognized that the PhD degree provides graduates with the invaluable skill of breaking down a large question into smaller parts. Throughout the workshop, we were able to use this skill in a completely different scenario outside of the lab.

Who would have known that a single iJOBS workshop could open my eyes and allow me to consider an entirely new career path? Only time will tell whether or not it is in my future, but it is definitely one that I will further consider.