Students, postdoc place third in life sciences consultancy competition

Badger Business Solutions — a team of graduate students and a postdoctoral researcher representing the departments and programs of Biochemistry, Chemistry, Food Science, and Biophysics — won third place at the Tufts New England Case Competition (TUNECC) on Friday, Aug. 3, 2018.

TUNECC is a life sciences consultancy competition where students and researchers are given an actual business case scenario: the company Seres Therapeutics specializes in microbiome therapies and is running out of cash but possesses great assets in their research pipeline that could make a profit. The students were tasked with developing a strategic plan to ensure the company’s short-term and long-term survival.

Photo of the team with a giant check
Left to right: Jonathan Valdez, Munish Chhabra, and Jennifer Yao stand with their third place check from the Tufts New England Case Competition. Alex Harwig was unable to attend the presentation but helped the team prepare for the contest.

The team included Munish Chhabra, a biophysics Ph.D. student in the lab of biochemistry professor Tom Record; Alex Harwig, a postdoctoral scholar in the lab of biochemistry professor Bob Landick; Jennifer Yao, a Biophysics Ph.D. student in the lab of chemistry professor Sam Gellman; and Jonathan Valdez, a master’s student in the Department of Food Science.

“We thought this was a good opportunity to apply our skills outside of the academic bubble,” Harwig says. “We are all part of WiSolve, a nonprofit organization where graduate students and postdocs learn about consultancy, and this competition was a great way to practice what we’ve learned. Our diverse and interdisciplinary team had many different specialties that allowed the four of us to come together and devise a great presentation.”

The teams had two weeks to put together their plan and presentation. The members of Badger Business Solutions put in many hours outside their regular lab work to analyze the materials provided about Seres Therapeutics and come up with solutions as a team. Their presentation consisted of a three-pronged approach.

Logo the team created. Text is black and red and image of Bucky Badger's face is also in the logo.
Badger Business Solutions logo team created

“To help the company survive in the short-term, we recommended putting a hold on one of the drugs they were developing because it wasn’t that far into the product pipeline and there were others closer to making a profit they could focus on,” says Chhabra, who served as team leader. “For longer term survival, our plan was to get the company into the diagnostics market and prioritize partnerships to help with clinical trials. I am planning to pursue a career in this field because I love science but also enjoy thinking about the bigger picture and how to fit scientific thinking and the research that we pursue into a business context.”

Members of the team learned how to analyze and make recommendations based on quarterly reports and financial and scientific documents. They also learned how to work on teams and about what careers exist outside of academia.

“As a graduate student, you are often working alone on your own project so being able to work on a team was a great learning experience,” Yao says. “I learned to trust the analysis and expertise of my teammates.”

Photo of Alex Harwig
Postdoctoral researcher Alex Harwig.

As members of WiSolve, the team’s members are either planning to pursue a career in life sciences consulting or exploring the possibility. Harwig says the opportunity was great for broadening his horizons about possibilities outside of academia. Chhabra adds that even for students interested in academia, the experience allows them to think about their lab work and scientific papers differently.

“I’m currently pursuing a career in life sciences management consulting, so when Munish presented the prospect of competing in this event I jumped at the chance,” Valdez says. “It was such a great learning experience. After ten days of a deep dive into the client’s market, I would feel comfortable discussing the microbiome therapeutics market with just about anybody.”

Round one of the competition consisted of a 15-minute presentation and 15-minute question and answer session with industry judges. Five finalists were then selected for a public presentation. The team placed third among a competitive group of universities from the Northeast, such as Harvard and MIT.

“It was great to compete as a school from the Midwest and I opened our presentation with ‘We are Badger Business Solutions and have flown all the way from Madison, Wisconsin to help Seres Therapeutics in the TUNECC 2018 competition,’ ” Chhabra says. “I think the judges were impressed we had come all that way. We were very proud to represent UW–Madison from the Midwest.”