The business of conservation: Pamplin students experience real-world consulting with help from engineering faculty
In a management course led by Dirk Buengel, assistant professor of practice in the Pamplin College of Business, business students were able to engage in consulting for an innovative real-world startup with an urgent mission: stopping the illegal timber trade.
The client: Conservation X Labs, a Washington, D.C.-based conservation organization and technology and innovation company. Hal Holmes, an engineer at Conservation X Labs, and Eli Vlaisavljevich, assistant professor in biomedical engineering and mechanics, received the student consulting team's business insights and managerial recommendations in the fall 2020 course.
Conservation X Labs supports and develops new technology to address drivers of extinction, with the aim to decrease the use of unsustainable practices and products. The organization counts the illegal timber trade — a billion-dollar industry contributing to deforestation, resulting in higher carbon dioxide emissions, soil erosion, and biological diversity loss — as one of those drivers.
Holmes and Vlaisavljevich first started working together when Vlaisavljevich began applying his expertise in a focused ultrasound method known as histotripsy to the context of rapidly identifying timber and its source. Holmes joined Vlaisavljevich, as well as Jason Holliday, an associate professor in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, in researching rapid DNA identification of timber and plant tissue as a method for sourcing timber shipments and helping determine whether they are legally harvested, thus working to improve supply train transparency.
Buengel's management course has a unique focus on startup technology, so he identifies companies with new technology goals as clients for his students. His students look at ways to develop the proposed new technology — like the use of rapid DNA identification at Conservation X Labs — and provide their real-world clients with a market entry strategy, a growth strategy, and a specific business plan for how to commercialize the technology.
Working with Conservation X Labs, the students had to balance financial stability with the organization's aim to maintain conservation goals, which is different than the typical business goal of maximizing profit. Conservation X Labs operates as both a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and a B-corporation.
The semester began with in-depth research into the industry — in this case, timber and the illegal timber trade. In teams of four and five, students then conducted a market analysis on the industry, assessing different timber species, locations, supply chains, possible competitors and customers, and laws and regulations pertaining to timber trade. They also created possible market entry strategies, identifying locations where Conservation X Labs may have the biggest impact while also estimating cost and revenue for the organization.
“I believe that these management consulting opportunities can create a lot of value, both for the companies and for our students,” Buengel said. “The students at Virginia Tech are some of the most qualified to do this. They are highly engaged and eager to apply their knowledge to organizational challenges and business improvement opportunities. This course always reminds me of what great students we have here.”
“I had hoped that working with the students in this course would not only provide a great benefit to our team through the development of long-term business, marketing, and financial plans centered around making a sustainable impact in environmental conservation, but would also continue a larger trend of fruitful collaborations between Virginia Tech’s engineering and business colleges as we continue to pursue translational research and development efforts that can advance beyond our labs and into the real-world,” Vlaisavljevich said. “This course seemed to do just that.”
One of the strengths of the collaboration was the teamwork between students, who in turn worked with the external client to co-create added value for the business, Buengel said.
“Being able to gain the real-world experience of consulting with an organization was amazing,” said Melissa Thomas, a fourth-year student majoring in management consulting and analytics and part of a team of four on the project. “It allowed me (and my team) to apply all the knowledge we have gained at Virginia Tech to an actual business and to help solve a problem. It also provided real insight as to what our future jobs may look like.”
“We had a unique opportunity to partner with a great group of students that worked hard to lay a foundation for our future development efforts while ensuring that we can remain focused on meeting our core conservation objectives through these business ventures,” Vlaisavljevich said. “I hope this experience will lead other researchers in in engineering, as well as their industry and nonprofit partners, to work with students in this course in the future, to make use of this excellent opportunity to work with these great students.”
- Written by Laura McWhinney