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MEMBER FEATURE: Postdoc Industry Consultants Program at Medical College of Wisconsin
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Christopher Smith

 

The Postdoc Industry Consultants (PICO) program is a bioscience consulting group providing research-based recommendations for biotechnology and pharmaceutical firms while broadening the business acumen of postdoctoral scholars and graduate students at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW).

 

PICO developed out of the realization that, to be competitive for industry positions, postdocs need experience. The initial clients were two MCW startup companies who were happy to have postdoc consultants’ assistance on small projects at no cost.

 

Julie Tetzlaff, PhD, Associate Dean of Postdoctoral Affairs and Graduate Career Development (Office of Postdoctoral Education) and Assistant Professor of Pathology at MCW, emphasized three key components of PICO that have remained since its founding: consulting, education, and networking.

 

Consulting projects, typically two or three months in length, consist of teams of two or three consultants with one senior consultant on every team. The senior consultant will have completed at least one project as a “junior” consultant in the PICO program.

 

Spatial distribution of employed PICO alumni and their respective sector of employment. Source of data: Medical College of Wisconsin kindly provided by Julie Tetzlaff, PhD. Graphical illustration (2018) by Alexandra Taraboletti, PhD.

PICO’s client base leans heavily toward MCW startups and small biotech/pharma companies in the Milwaukee/Southeast Wisconsin area, who appreciate the valuable services they get from the program’s consultants at no cost.

 

PICO hosts educational workshops by industry speakers every month. Many speakers get satisfaction out of educating the PICO trainees on topics they are passionate about (intellectual property law, start-up culture, etc.) and happily volunteer to share their experiences.

 

PICO also hosts bi-yearly networking events that bring together academic and industry partners. These events have recently been sponsored via a partnership with MCW’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute Office.

 

The Formation of PICO

PICO developed out of the realization that, to be competitive for industry positions, postdocs need experience. Lena Watanabe, PhD, a MCW postdoc, and Phil Clifford, PhD, former Associate Dean of the MCW Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, developed the PICO program in 2011. The initial clients were two MCW startup companies who were happy to have postdoc consultants’ assistance on small projects at no cost.

 

Success of PICO Alumni

PICO alumni are in a variety of roles spread across the country. Tetzlaff mentioned that hiring managers are often very impressed with trainees’ PICO experiences. One alumnus, Clarissa Muere, PhD, is now a Licensing Analyst at the Center for Technology Transfer and Commercialization at Vanderbilt University, a position which she finds very rewarding and fulfilling. She emphasized the variety of experiences she obtained as a PICO consultant and the value of networking with individuals in industry, tech transfer, and law firms while part of PICO.

With positive feedback from the clients and consultants, the PICO program expanded through a Career Guidance for Trainees grant from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. The funding allowed PICO to invite experts from a variety of business areas to speak with its consultants, purchase access to a competitive intelligence platform that allows consultants to perform research for potential clients, and pay for postdocs to travel to biotechnology/pharmaceutical/business conferences (e.g., BIO, AUTM, Bioforward) to network, gain knowledge of industry trends, as well as promote PICO’s services and recruit clients.

 

A Valuable Experience for Postdocs and Graduate Students

As the program matured, it was clear PICO was a mutually beneficial relationship: expert/knowledgeable PhD-trained consultants provide pro-bono services to clients, while learning real-world business skills and developing a portfolio of their capabilities to show to potential future employers.

 

Josh Garlich, PhD, postdoc consultant and co-portfolio manager for PICO, has been in the group for a year. He highlighted some of the projects consultants work on in PICO, from writing SBIR grants for small biotech companies to conducting competitive intelligence research, creating business models, and R&D pipeline prioritization platforms. “As a PICO consultant, I got to use my data synthesis and communication abilities to aid clients, while developing my business acumen,” said Garlich. This experience allowed Garlich to discover his passion and realize he has the ability to do industry work. He enjoys the fast-paced, varied projects he has been involved with as a PICO consultant, and the experience gives him an advantage as he looks for jobs in project management. PICO co-founder Clifford is gratified to see participants such as Garlich fare well on the job market. They get interviews for industry positions and can speak the language and understand the business mindset.

 

 

As a licensing agent, Muere is responsible for commercializing life science technologies. Photo courtesy of Clarissa Muere, PhD.

Recently, PICO expanded its consultants to include graduate students. Francie Moehring started in PICO as a graduate student consultant. She emphasized that time management, communication, and interpersonal skills learned in PICO can help one be a better Principal Investigator or project manager within industry, two careers she is considering. “PICO has made me more confident in applying for industry jobs; I now know the lingo used on resumes versus academic CVs,” said Moehring, whose involvement in five different PICO projects showcases the breadth of experiences possible for enthusiastic and motivated consultants.

 

Getting Faculty Buy-In

While exploring the idea of allowing grad students to participate in PICO, the organization wanted to maintain a good relationship with PIs and worked hard to get their buy-in into the program.

 

For all PICO participants, required advisor/PI approval is obtained by signing a document outlining in detail the program’s expectations of consultants. In this way the advisor is made aware of the time commitment their trainees are giving to PICO and that they are to work on their PICO projects during “off hours” (in the evening or on weekends). Consultants typically spend 5 hr/week on a project, an amount designed to not interfere with participants’ research. This approach promotes a good working relationship between the PICO program and MCW faculty.

 

Importantly, a research paper is forthcoming from the MCW group showing that participation in PICO does not impact postdoctoral productivity in the lab, contrary to some advisors concerns. In fact, PICO participants often feel energized and motivated to pursue their research after learning how scientific discoveries are commercialized to solve real world problems.

 

Tips on Implementing a PICO-type Program

Given the success of PICO, what are the keys to making it run efficiently? What would it take to create a similar program at another institution?

  • Postdoctoral office and postdocs create a trainee-run program:
    • Motivated, outgoing postdocs and graduate students manage the organization
    • A faculty advisor provides continuity (of procedures, clients, roles to be filled)
  • Consultant postdocs continuously build a client base through networking at meetings and conferences
  • PICO holds bi-annual networking events for past and prospective clients, consultants, and all interested MCW staff and trainees to interact and learn about program
  • University recruits new consultants into the program:
    • During human resources onboarding
    • Help current PICO consultant host info sessions

By making the mutual benefits of a program like PICO evident to all, the group expects to continue to flourish and inspire other institutions to provide this valuable training and service opportunity to their own trainee and industry communities.

 

Christopher Smith, PhD, is a postdoctoral trainee in the Department of Psychology at Vanderbilt University. He serves as junior co-chair of the Vanderbilt Postdoctoral Association.