Program provides hands-on international business experience
A psychology major, a mathematics major, and two biology majors — what could these four students coming from different academic backgrounds all have in common? An interest in the intersection between business and healthcare, along with an opportunity to work firsthand with start-up biotechnology companies in Norway.
St. Olaf College students Emily Scott ’20, Estee Welo ’20, Gabriel Hale ’21, and Abhinab Kc ’21 were selected to participate in the Norway Innovation Scholars Program (NISP) early last year. Modeled after the Mayo Innovation Scholars Program, NISP is a monthlong internship during Interim that connects students from a variety of majors to evaluate technologies created by Norwegian businesses for the potential to be marketed. NISP allows students to develop skills in market analysis, technology transfer, and business development, among other skill sets.
While this year’s program is virtual because of the global COVID-19 pandemic, in a typical year Oles spend the month of January in Norway working alongside business leaders. Last year’s cohort of students did just that. Throughout the monthlong experience organized by the St. Olaf Piper Center for Vocation and Career, students had regular contact with academic advisors like Associate Director of Career Development and Coaching for STEM Paul Edwards and Professor of Biology Kevin Crisp. What makes NISP unique, Edwards says, is that it provides students with an opportunity to work on an international team and develop intercultural skills. Through the program, students look at the different perspectives of various groups involved in the project: stakeholders, patients, and healthcare providers — and that experience can influence future career choices.
“There’s a lot of reflection that goes on as students are able to take what they’re learning and apply it to their own specific career interests, while at the same time, it does open up ideas for new careers for some students,” he says. “They may not have ever considered that they could be a consultant for a biomedical company. Someone with maybe a psychology major or a business major or a biology major or chemistry, it may not be something that they’ve encountered and they never would have considered it, so they also get these other ideas for possible careers or how these careers may intersect with their pre-existing career choices.”
The business side of medicine
Scott, who had studied abroad in Copenhagen the spring semester of 2018-19, already knew she liked Scandinavian culture and had previous experience with biotech companies in Denmark. Additionally, she has interned at medical device companies Boston Scientific and Medtronic in Minnesota but wanted to broaden her view on how similar systems worked in other countries, which inspired her to apply for NISP.
“I’m a bio major and my internships have been more research and engineering focused, so it was really interesting to see the business side of things and realize there’s a lot you can do with your background,” she says. “Obviously, going to another country and interacting with different people, you’re going to gain more insights into different experiences, and there’s so many cool products and ideas out there that you don’t always get to learn about [in the classroom], but they’ll help somebody at some point, so that’s really cool.”
Similar to Scott, Hale had previously worked with biotech over summers and through other internships. However, NISP offered a different perspective from the projects he had participated in before.
“What prompted me to apply was that it was pitched to STEM, pre-med kids, and I fit both of those categories, so it was sort of pitched towards me,” he says. “It was a really interesting opportunity to get involved in biotech in a way that I hadn’t before. I have worked several times in biotech but it’s always been on product design and product testing, [but] this [program] was the marketing side of it, so completely different.”
For Welo, she applied more generally for the innovations programs because of their applicability to her future career aspirations.
“I was really interested in working on a project that would give me experience working in the intersection between business and health care because that’s what I’m considering pursuing as a career,” she says. “I thought it would give valuable experience and skills for that reason. I was accepted into the Norway program itself, and I was like ‘Okay, yeah, I’ll go to Norway,’ and I’m so glad that I did. It was so much fun.”
St. Olaf’s partner for the program, Norway Health Tech — an incubator for start-ups — annually provides information about companies that want to have students collaborate on their projects, which is how RemovAid and Observe Medical were selected for the program. Upon arriving in Oslo, the students were divided into two teams and paired with Norwegian students from the NLA Hague School of Management.
In their newly formed teams, Welo and Hale worked for RemovAid, who invented a device that removes contraceptive implants in women’s arms. They have been working with corporations to get their product in some developing countries in Africa, where there has been an uptake in implants but not in removal. Welo and Hale were assigned to help the company assess and enter the U.S. healthcare market.
“It was a really ambiguous project, so at first it was really hard to define the parameters of what they wanted us to find. The U.S. healthcare system is so incredibly complicated, but it was really interesting getting to look at it from an outsider’s perspective or even to get to talk to our Norwegian counterparts and hear about how the healthcare system differs culturally,” Welo says. “In the beginning, we were just researching generally, but we eventually narrowed it down and were able to come up with an answer.”
The other team, Scott and Kc, worked for Observe Medical and were asked to research intensive care units in the U.S., interfaces with electronic health record systems, FDA certification, and other steps that would help create a go-to-U.S. market plan for their company. Observe Medical’s product is called Sippi, which is a urine output volume measuring system for intensive care unit (ICU) patients. This device automatically measures urine output every hour and uses bluetooth technology to send the information to a data management system since decreased urine levels may be an indication of kidney failure.
“Most days where we worked was this collaboration space for start-ups, so it was like going to a library to work on a group project every day,” Scott says. “The first 1.5 weeks was doing some preliminary research and solidifying what we thought we would be able to find, and the next 1.5 weeks were digging deeper into those. Day to day it wasn’t that dissimilar, but if you look at the first day to the last day it was different, and toward the end we were writing everything up into a report and preparing a presentation for the company.”
Both companies involved in last year’s program were pleased with each team’s final presentations, which provided unique insight into the U.S. market. Norway Health Tech wrote an article about the benefits of this collaboration and the invaluable research that the St. Olaf students provided for their respective companies.
An invaluable experience
Edwards emphasizes that while this experience is popular with specific majors, it is not exclusive. “Any major that you have, any career, any discipline has some aspect of problem solving — researching, trying to understand what information you have, trying to sort out what you still need, gathering that information, and then evaluating it based on what your final goal is — that aspect of curiosity and the need for creative thinking are independent of your major,” he says.
In addition to their work, the four students were able to participate in various activities around the city in partnership with another St. Olaf program based in Oslo during Interim. Some events were jumping into the Oslo Fjord, visiting the Munch Museum and seeing ‘The Scream,” and walking through Vigeland Sculpture Park.
Welo says NISP is one of the best experiences she’s had as a student at St. Olaf. “It gave me confidence in knowing what I want to do after graduation — working in a business system that focuses on healthcare and maybe even global healthcare,” she says. “The project itself was super interesting. I really enjoyed it, and of course, I loved being in Oslo. It’s such a unique experience to be able to work in a foreign business setting.”
Hale agrees, noting that the program enabled him to gain a lot of confidence in his skillset. “I was asked to do the things that I’d never been asked to do before and found out that I was capable of doing them, so that was really, really great. I would absolutely do it again.”
The experience helped Scott learn that she knows a lot more than she gave herself credit for. “We didn’t have a good starting point for our project, so just realizing that you have to start in one place with your research and that’s going to lead you down a bunch of different avenues that you can keep pursuing. It all builds on top of each other,” Scott says. “Also, in the end, the company was super appreciative of what we did.”