How to start talking with multi-million dollar companies while at school? Interview with Alex Kernagis

Last month, Reimagine covered Hack-Homewood – the first hackathon organized by Cobalt Consulting Group, a student-led organization founded last year by several JHU undergraduate students to give students an opportunity to consult businesses. We sat down with Alex Kernagis (KSAS ’23) to discuss his unique experience with founding and running Cobalt.

Tell me a little about the Cobalt Consulting. 

We were founded a little over a year ago now with the idea to create a really unique learning experience for undergrads here. Most other universities that we’re on par with have student-run consulting groups, and so it was interesting to us why we don’t have a central one on campus. We have a couple around here, but essentially, they’re very limited in the scope of their work. One is just like purely marketing stuff. One just deals with like nonprofits. And so, we really felt that there was a niche here that was extremely untapped. And we felt that given the medical focus that this whole university has, that life sciences and healthcare would be the perfect place to specialize and give us a pretty cool value proposition to potential clients. 

We went about forming this team, running projects in the last year and a half, we’ve actually run 10 projects. Now I think those ten clients have been valued at about like 50 billion in total market cap. It’s been a really unique experience.  

Who are your typical clients? 

We’ve worked with massive clients, smaller clients. It’s been interesting to see the differences between a startup that has just secured a round of funding versus a more established company. What’s been interesting is that most of these companies see that we’re from Johns Hopkins. We have a lot of biomedical engineers. We have the #1 BME program in the country, the undergrad one. So, it allows us to be able to have a lot of credibility as far as the work that we’re able to do, and so all of our clients treat us like actual consultants. We always sign NDA’s and confidentiality is a pretty big part of what we do. But we see exactly what they do. It’s not every day where a 19-20-year-old is given the opportunity to look at the baseline technology of billion-dollar tech companies. So, it’s been. It’s been a really unique learning experience. 

So, you mostly work with clients in life sciences? 

We operate broadly in life sciences and healthcare. Life science is any sort of medical technology. A bunch of the different verticals that we’ve covered are pharmaceuticals, diagnostics, therapeutics, medical devices, biotechnology – those are a bunch of different subsets. Therapeutics companies – we work with a handful of them. Like cancer therapeutics, so say, developing biopsy assays for cancer therapeutics, essentially, working around ways to treat cancer patients, whereas diagnostics is the other side of things where it’s diagnosing a patient, trying to detect cancer earlier. That’s the difference between diagnostics and therapeutics. A medical device, medical device company. That would be more of a company that would resect a tumor. They’re creating the actual physical device that would be used to take out the tumor, and then a biotechnology company would essentially be selling a drug. There’s a lot of them out there, so a lot of like cancer drugs that target specific genes within a tumor sequence. I use oncology because I’m very familiar with it, to understand the different verticals. But each step along the way there are different types of companies that specialize in one specific niche, and those are massive industries within themselves and so, anything within there, we essentially cover. 

What is your major? 

I’m a public health and economics major. 

Do you need medical and bioengineering expertise to join Cobalt? 

I don’t think you definitely need one, but you need to be able to learn. I would say that 60 to 70% of what we do is just reading academic scientific papers and so being able to understand that sort of stuff is really important. When you come from Biomedical Engineering, Chemical Biomolecular Engineering, those types of majors that are already more STEM-focused, it’s less of a learning curve, you already have that knowledge built into your coursework, and so when you read a paper, it’s like second nature, whereas for someone who’s a Public Health major, it’ll take them double the time to understand everything. 

That’s why, I want to say, 70% of our organization is from BME, ChemBE, MolCell, like the typical STEM majors that are at the intersection between engineering and medicine essentially, but I think we also have people that are from Economics, Public Health. We have a couple of Engineering folks just like strictly engineering and so, you don’t need to, but you essentially just need to be a fast learner. 

You work with big companies, but why do they need a consulting group? 

The way I usually flick phrase it to clients when they ask us this same question is that typically companies have priority A items, right? They have limited staff and limited resources. They only have so many people that they can assign work to, and there’s like these very, you know, early objectives that they need to be getting to right away to just run the daily functions of their company. 

But there are also these, I like to call them “Priority B objectives” that are a little bit further off, maybe they’re two months out, three months out. These are things that they want to get to, but they just don’t have the staff resources to get to at the current moment. It is like a problem that they have that will require a lot of research and a lot of critical thinking to take on. And maybe they don’t have the staff or like an entire team devoted to answering that question. 

We come in and we provide a set of four to five hands and just do a lot of that grunt work, and essentially a lot of it is the research, a lot of critical thinking for about 6 to 8 weeks and take that load off their shoulders. Essentially, we’re acting as an extension of their team. A good example is if we were asked: “OK, we have this new medical device. We want to figure out how to properly price it. We don’t want to price it too low. We don’t want to price it too high.” Within that question is embedded a bunch of other questions, so one of the first ones would be: “Ok, what does your technology look like? What does it actually do? What is the scientific approach you’re taking? From a consumer lens, what is better about your product than other products?” So, there are already like five or six questions within there about your product and not only do we have questions about your product, but we also have questions about the overall market, like: “Where are your competitors in terms of their pricing? What are their competitive advantages like? What are they doing better than you potentially?” And so now we have to look at all these different things and do a lot of research structured very efficiently and come up with an answer as to what dollar amount, we are going to put on your product when you bring it to the market. That takes a while. It’s not just something that you know, you would just come up with on a snap and just say: “Hey, we’re going to charge $10,000 for this product.” It’s the perfect intersection between medicine, business, and science. It’s all combines and it’s all in there together. 

How much time do you take for these projects? 

We do projects each semester for 6 to 8 weeks, and it’s a one and a half to a two-month timeline. I would say we devote anywhere from 8 to 10 hours a week a person on each project and each project has about four people. It’s like adding either a part-time job or another course load of work on top of what we’re already doing. So, it is pretty difficult to manage. We found that Hopkins students are pretty good at managing their time, especially the ones that are extremely capable. They just find ways to get everything done in time. It is difficult, but it’s just something that comes with this learning experience. It comes with the privilege to be able to do these things and our clients trust that we get our work done on time and we haven’t really missed a deadline yet for them. It’s been difficult, but we get it done. 

Did you know each other before founding Cobalt? Did you have any consulting experience? 

A handful of us knew each other, a couple of us were mutual acquaintances. But I think out of our founding team, two of our founders are going to work at McKinsey full-time in the Spring [2022] and then one of them is actually signed at Bain for an internship this summer as well. I will be going to work at Morgan Stanley this summer and a couple of our folks have also signed at a couple of other places as well, so it’s been a pretty unique group of people across a bunch of different disciplines. It’s been an interesting year. 

And how many people founded Cobalt? 

We started with a team of five people initially and I think we’ve grown it to about 25 to 30 people now. 

Cobalt Consulting Founding Team

You’re recruiting members now. How is it going? 

It’s going well. We’re actually in the midst of it. So how we operate is that there’s general membership, which is open to the entire student body. We do a lot of professional development events, alumni events like networking panels, etc. And then there’s like the actual consulting team, which does these projects, and that’s more of a leadership role. We do these applications once a year. It’s been going very well, I think. We had a lot more applicants than we expected, and we are currently in the midst of doing interviews and those should be wrapping up sometime in December. 

Yeah, I think I think 25 to 30 is honestly a sweet spot because you know, our consulting team is only anywhere from 15 to 20 members, and then we have another 10 on the operation side of things to back up everything. We have a bunch of different departments, so like data and finance, professional development, corporate development, client services, those types of things, and so 25 to 30 is a sweet spot for our leadership team. 

How does it feel to be 19-20 years old students and working with these big companies? 

At the beginning, we were all very surprised that we had gotten this off the ground, that these clients were taking the time of day to even speak to us. But then, over time, we realized that we could do the work, it’s possible. I would say our team is very bright and so over time you adjust to it, you gain a little confidence and you gain the ability to just converse with people. At the end of the day that’s really what it is, and that’s a life skill you have to learn regardless of whether it’s now or when you enter the workforce when you graduate. But yeah, it was slightly intimidating at first, but I think all of us have gotten used to it. Most of our team has done at least one or two projects, if not three. Even a couple of weeks ago we got connected with the CEO of a company that an IPO in Europe and he was more than willing to connect us with other folks and hop on a call. That’s the sort of thing that is not even that surprising to me anymore, which I know sounds crazy, but it’s become a regular thing for us, which is really interesting, but also a very blessing experience. 

When we reach out to clients sometimes, they’re like: “Hey, you know I don’t really see how you guys can be a fit. You know I don’t have any work at the moment that I could see that you guys do.” But then a lot of the time the other ones are extremely willing, they kind of see the value in bringing us on board. They see the value in not only giving us a learning experience but getting some valuable information out of it.  

Was it hard to get your first clients? 

Yeah, our first three were probably the toughest ones. Just because we had nothing to our name, we are just getting started out, no track record. People were like: “What have you done before?” We said: “Nothing.” Those first three clients, we were really grateful for because in an interesting way, they were the thing that sparked all of this. They gave us our first shot and yeah it was a very blessing experience. 

Do you receive any help from the University? 

I think we have a very good relationship with the university. We have a couple of faculty advisors that operate in the Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures program, the Biomedical Engineering program, the undergraduate Business program. We have a lot of advisors already at the university and then on top of that departments, such as Life Design Lab, the Career Center at Hopkins – they’ve been very generous and kind to us. They’re always willing to help us out, willing to share messages and things. 

And then even the Provost Department as well. Hack Homewood essentially spawned out of us connecting with Provost Kumar. Our leadership team hopped on like a 20–30-minute call with him, just picking his brain about the different things that could be addressed at the university. That hackathon was essentially focused on us trying to create a case around something at the university that could actually be addressed. We didn’t want it to be a learning exercise. We wanted it to be a very realistic thing where the university could take whatever solutions that were proposed by applicants and actually implement them. That event was extremely successful because we were able to connect the Top 2 groups back with the Provost Department, the departments of facilities and real estate, and they were able to present their solutions and hopefully, in the next 5 to 10 years we might see the actual bearing of those solutions. So, we have a very good standing with the university. We’re super appreciative of everything they’ve done for us, we probably wouldn’t be here without them. It’s a give-and-take relationship, but it’s been a good one so far. 

Are you planning another Hack-Homewood? 

Yeah, we will try to do it next year and the plan is to do it every year going forwards. It’s interesting because it takes a while to flesh out the actual topic, so every year we’re planning on shifting the topic a little bit and moving it around. Hopefully, this will be happening again next year. 

To those who are inspired by your work and want to start a student organization like yours, what would you recommend? 

I want to say that when you have an idea, the first thing to recognize is how much of a value proposition do you have? Is this a thing 100 times greater than what is out there? Is there actually a need for it? You know, sometimes, people have ideas for things, and sometimes there’s not really a need for it, but sometimes there is. A lot of the time it’s being in the right place at the right time. 

But if there is a need for it, you kind of have to trust yourself and the next steps are just doing everything you can to get to where you want to be. So, just having grit, having some determination, just putting in hard work, a lot of it is just pure hours – nothing more than that. Some critical thinking, but also, at the university, it’s also getting the proper guidance, the proper support. We ran into mentors along the way that were extremely helpful. We would not be here without a couple of them, which we’re still in touch with at the university, one of whom actually left to go work in a private sector, who was our lead advisor at the very beginning and we’re still very fond of her and super grateful for everything she did for us. 

How did you find this support and mentoring? 

I think at the beginning I knew a couple of people that were in the Biomedical Engineering department. I also knew a couple of people through mutual acquaintance. The conversation started going, we started texting each other saying: “Hey, we think this is a good idea. Would you be interested?” and eventually more and more people were interested. Everyone saw the idea and saw where it could end up. I think because of that, everyone is really on board to help out, and so that’s how we met each other, and then we actually met our advisor through another Vice Provost of Life Design, who we still have a good relationship with, Farouk Dey, who’s incredible. He connected us with Fast Forward University, who is essentially the undergraduate wing of JHTV, and we’ve actually been with them ever since. Kerrie Carden was previously the director of FFU, who has now left to go start our own consulting firm. She was our head advisor and she mentored us a lot. Then we’ve been with FastForwardU ever since. Josh Ambrose is now our advisor there, he leads the FFU initiatives, he’s been great too. 

Don’t forget to read our review of Hack-Homewood on Reimagine

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