University of Pittsburgh graduate student team presents their ideas to judges in the 2015 Pitt Health Innovation Case Competition.

University of Pittsburgh graduate student team presents their ideas to judges in the 2015 Pitt Health Innovation Case Competition.

Pittsburgh styles itself as the city of three rivers where the Allegheny and the Monongahela form the Ohio, the original way west to new frontiers, but now a group of science grad students have opened a new river of expertise, aimed at helping the Pittsburgh entrepreneurial community and giving themselves nonacademic career experience. The grad-student-run nonprofit Fourth River Solutions is already channeling area projects in new directions.

It started at the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt) in April 2014. Inspired by business case competitions for biomedical researchers at other universities, Saik Kia Goh, graduate student in bioengineering, wanted to host one locally. Recruiting friends, Goh and company organized business seminars to prepare students and postdocs to solve bioindustry cases, found funding for cash prizes, and invited McKinsey & Company, a leading consulting firm, to judge the competition. “The judges were surprised that the PhD students and postdocs were able to answer the business questions,” Goh said.

Flushed with their success in the case competition, the grad students approached Pitt’s technology transfer office. “They have 300 tech disclosures per year, a steady stream to evaluate as training ground for greener consultants,” Goh said. Pitt’s technology transfer office was receptive and willing to refer potential clients. To make their status official, Goh and colleagues founded Fourth River Solutions. Goh now serves as a Chief Executive Officer of the organization.

Since its start 14 months ago, Fourth River Solutions has enrolled 50 graduate students and postdocs from Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University. Together they have completed about 14 projects, including several that came to them from outside the Pitt technology transfer office. Recently they did a market analysis for a client who hoped his discovery would make an impact in developing countries. However, the Fourth River consultants found that it would be too expensive for that market. “There was no viable point for market entry,” said Alicia Watson, a Pitt grad student in cell pathology who was a Fourth River co-founder and is the current Chief Human Resources Officer. Although disappointing news, the consultancy’s report helped the client think differently about his technology, Watson said.

Now Fourth River is applying for 501(c)3 status with the Internal Revenue Service so it can operate as an independent nonprofit, instead of remaining a student organization under the umbrella of the university. “We wanted to make [Fourth River] its own entity, with the freedom to pursue our own goals,” said Watson. Members of a similar organization, BALSA Group, formed in St. Louis four years ago by Washington University students, gave Fourth River advice on how to navigate its position at the university, Goh said.

No one is paid, but Fourth River does charge a nominal fee to cover minimal operating costs or, in lieu of a fee, invites clients to give talks about careers outside academia or to host workshops on skills that could be useful to scientist-consultants pursuing careers away from the bench. The goal of Fourth River is make its experts more marketable.

“We’re not just a bunch of students who do consulting,” said Chelsea Merkel, a grad student in cell biology who is the incoming HR officer at Fourth River. “We have a professional development arm of our organization, with lectures and workshops for anyone who is interested.” Her predecessor Watson pointed out that a recent evening workshop on how to write a resume drew 110 attendees. “And there wasn’t even free pizza,” she said.

Fourth River management isn’t worried that their low cost services will undercut the consulting market, but Goh explained that a major goal of the grad student-consultants is to help the Pittsburgh entrepreneurial community, especially financially constrained start-ups. “We’re not a cheap consulting service, rather a forum for students to learn in collaboration with companies that wouldn’t be able to afford consulting services,” Goh said.

Their efforts to improve their job prospects are paying off. McKinsey & Company’s recruitment of students in Pittsburgh has risen dramatically. Now University of Pittsburgh is the third highest in the Midwest for interviews at the firm, according to Goh, with two Fourth River alumni now working there. “Consulting is a vehicle for professional development. It helps students learn the business side of science, teamwork, how businesses work, and other soft skills,” Goh said.

Christina Szalinski

Christina Szalinski is a science writer with a PhD in Cell Biology from the University of Pittsburgh.

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