Beyond the Lab: Bringing a Scientific Approach to Business Strategy and Innovation

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At some point in our lives, we have all heard the term ‘nature vs nurture’ in some capacity. We often hear this referenced when discussing the source of athletic abilities or artistic talents.

“Are world-class athletes born or are they bred?”
“Are musical prodigies born or are they trained?”

From a very young age, these kinds of questions intrigued me. I have always been fascinated with understanding how this complex machinery of life works – how and why things function the way they do, what drives people to act and do the things they do every day. And I have applied these questions to all facets of life, from understanding how our genetic material (our DNA) encodes for the color of our eyes and skin to how our life experiences and upbringing influence our personality and the decisions we make in our adulthood. This passion for understanding life at a functional level has been my guide and motivation throughout my academic career and led me to pursue a doctoral degree.

As a result, I earned my Ph.D. in Chemical Biology from the University of Michigan doing cancer research.

During graduate school, I actively explored different ­­­­professional industries to make well-informed decisions on my future career after obtaining my degree. I had the opportunity to get involved with a student-led nonprofit consulting organization called miLEAD Consulting, where I realized that the skills earned during the course of my research track were directly applicable to the consulting world and that I actually loved the work. During my training in the science field, I gained a better appreciation of how a scientific approach can positively impact business decisions, particularly when it comes to innovation, marketing, and strategy consulting. This came to life for me once I joined Great Lakes GrowthWorks (GLGW).

At GLGW, we are challenged with a variety of exciting projects that range from shaping new products to helping companies decide which products to bring to market and how to differentiate them from the competition. We solve these challenges using a method we call Catapult™, and I have been surprised by how analogous it is to my approach to scientific research. In our Catapult™ approach, we guide companies and organizations to proactively face disruption and leverage it to grow. That means helping identify opportunities that are emerging in a changing world, then generating strategies and innovation that transcends the disruption.


Although my trajectory to consulting is considered nontraditional, my scientific background gives me an edge and a different perspective to tackle complex and exciting problems. In consulting, it is an absolute necessity to be able to work as part of a team, have strong time management, problem-solving and strategic planning abilities, which can be learned and put into practice as a scientific researcher. But beyond those, my PhD experiences have given me specific skills/advantages that support me in my role as a business analyst.

1. Research, Research, Research

When conducting research, you take on pressing questions and problems and exhaust all resources at hand to get to the answer.

Whether you are trying to get to the root of why cancerous cells are proliferating in our bodies or how automation and technology are affecting grocery retail profitability, the principles applied to choose and design the best methodology to gather and analyze information and succinctly synthesize it to effectively communicate findings are the same. In science, you rely on multiple experiments of differing nature to make robust conclusions and validate your findings. Similarly, when it comes to analyzing business trends, one has to marry different kinds of analysis (e.g. qualitative and quantitative) to get to strong conclusions. With the quantitative data, past and present performance metrics of a product can be measured and help predict future performance most accurately all factors that influence consumer behavior remain constant. However, because the nature of consumer behavior is very dynamic, using qualitative analysis together with the quantitative allows for well-rounded assessments of a product’s future by incorporating and understanding the needs of the target consumer and their key motivators.

2. Resiliency and Flexibility

At the laboratory bench, research consists of multiple cycles of formulating hypotheses based on prior knowledge to understand the why/how of certain phenomena, followed by data-driven answers obtained through many months (in some cases, years!) of experiments. Usually, researchers have a hunch on what the answer will be even before conducting experiments because the prior data is suggestive. However, most of the time, it turns out that the hunch was wrong, and that is the beauty of research! So after a minute or two of feeling deflated, we brush it off and go back to the drawing board with optimism to establish a new hypothesis and repeat the cycle until we get to the answer. This resiliency is very much needed in the consulting business. Many times, we get stuck on an idea or strategy because, in theory, it sounds robust, yet once we factor in the consumers’ perspective and the capabilities, direction goals, and leadership considerations of a company, we realize it no longer is the way to go. We have to be flexible, go back to the board and draw another, if not multiple winning ideas.

3. Credibility

Having gone through the arduous experience of conducting research in the chemical biology space, I understand the chemical processes that directly and indirectly affect the markets, for example:

Food and Beverage Sector

When it comes to consumer-packaged goods, regardless of the specific product category, all innovation requires some degree of interaction and input from the R&D team to assess the plausibility of new and/or improved product development. Understanding the chemistry of nutrition is crucial for effective marketing and innovation within this space. Having a person in the consulting team that can speak the same “language” as the R&D team as myself reassures clients of the value and legitimacy in the work done by our firm.

Environmental and Sustainability Sector

With more and more recognition that climate change can directly impact business operations and growth, companies are turning to strategy consulting firms to help them design and implement sustainable roadmaps and initiatives to consciously make better use of their resources and combat environmental degradation. My scientific background allows me to easily grasp environmental concepts and understand both natural and organizational forces that allow for sustainable practices within business operations, which makes possible the development of sustainability plans that are scientifically sound and manageable based on the resources and capabilities of companies.

Very much like science, in the business world we can think of consumer behavior and innovation in the context of ‘nature vs nurture’. I like to re-phrase it as ‘biology vs psychology’. Thanks to industrialization and urbanization, we now enjoy the luxury of having a vast array of mass-produced, technologically advanced goods that we can choose from to sustain our way of living. Outside forces and disruptions are impacting how consumers shop for, buy, and use products. Therefore, ‘nature’ (or ‘biology’) is no longer the only thing that dictates consumer behavior and shouldn’t be the only aspect considered when thinking about how to bring innovation to people’s hands in a space filled with so much competition. It will require some nurturing (psychology) as well! So while the jury may still be out on whether an athlete/artist is born or created, when it comes to business, perhaps the answer for companies who want to innovate and win in a disruptive market is not as simple as considering one or the other, but a combination of both.

Phil Roos

About The Author

Former CEO.