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Student-Run Consulting Group Aims to Bridge the Gap Between the Bench and Business

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In its first year-and-a-half of existence, the BALSA Group has matched more than 100 consultants with 29 projects from 20 biotech and other startups. A student-run nonprofit, BALSA — Biotechnology and Life Science Advising — was incorporated in St. Louis, Mo., in December 2010, and is one of several such organizations that have sprung up in recent years connecting graduate students and postdocs seeking business experience with cash-strapped companies looking to commercialize a product or service.

The consulting services that BALSA provides — largely related to primary and secondary market analysis, among other things — offer nascent businesses within the St. Louis startup sector an affordable alternative to hiring established consultancy teams. For the students and postdocs who provide those services, it is all about industry exposure.

"We saw this as a really great opportunity to kill two birds with one stone — to provide assistance to these biotech companies. … And in return, we graduate students and postdocs get to talk to CEOs of companies, we get to work with them, we get to work on their problems for them, and we tackle it in a way that is innate to our training," says Maxim Schillebeeckx, a PhD student in molecular genetics and genomics at Washington University in St. Louis, and a co-founder of the BALSA Group. "Our training in academia was actually quite amenable to consulting problems."

Schillebeeckx says that BALSA was partly a product of his fellow graduate students and postdocs' grievances against traditional academic training. "The numbers tell us that we are not actually going into academia, yet our training is exclusively to become scientists," he says. "We lamented the fact that when we start applying for jobs, we have no real exposure to business problems."

Of course, it wasn't as easy as just assembling a team, creating a website, and fielding calls. Getting those first few clients was tough, Schillebeeckx says.

But it has been worth the struggle. "I personally have learned a tremendous amount, and see our consultants gaining teamwork skills, communicating skills, and leadership skills that I don't know we would gain as readily doing a PhD or staying purely in an academic training environment," he adds.

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