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Capstone Project Helps Chemical Company Employees / Grad Students See Their Potential

When Virginia Tech alumnus Brian Alexander stepped into the laboratory and opened his computer, he couldn’t believe his eyes. “Inorganic Ventures to move to Christiansburg, Virginia,” the headline read.

For the Blacksburg native residing in Germany, the news seemed too serendipitous to be true.

It wasn’t long before Alexander returned to the New River Valley to join Inorganic Ventures, a manufacturer of certified reference materials, as chief technology officer (CTO). In the 12 years since, the company has continued to expand. “When I joined, the company had grown to about 35 employees, and we’ve more than doubled since then,” he said.

The growth of the company’s workforce mirrors the rapid expansion of its customer base, which has grown to represent a wide range of industries around the globe. This presented a challenge for the CTO. “When we would ask simple questions like ‘Where are we growing?’ or ‘What geographies have been most promising for us in the past 12 months?’ it was somewhat disheartening how difficult it was to answer those questions because we were aggregating data across thousands of accounts and products.”

To address these challenges, Alexander turned to Virginia Tech — first, by enrolling in and graduating from the Pamplin College of Business’ Master of Science in business administration program and, more recently, by sponsoring a capstone project with the Center for Business Analytics at Virginia Tech.

The Center for Business Analytics operates the Master of Science in business administration with a concentration in business analytics (MSBA-BA) program. This one-year graduate program is distinguished not only by its rigorous business analytics curriculum, but also by its signature capstone project experience — a nine-month partnership with sponsoring companies that emulates real-world conditions.

Capstone teams are made up of four to five students, chosen specifically to address the unique problems faced by their sponsoring organization. Inorganic Ventures’ capstone team was ready to respond to the challenge set forth by Alexander.

“For this particular cohort and the fantastic group of students that we worked with, we really needed them to answer fundamental questions like: ‘How are we making our money?’ ‘Where are we making our money?’ and ‘What recommendations would they have for leveraging that knowledge to support continued growth?’”

Inorganic Ventures gave the students access to the company’s complex data sets, providing them with hands-on, real-world experience in data analysis and visualization. Over the course of the nine-month project, the team worked to deliver a solution that would support the company’s continued success. By the end of the project, the students developed and delivered a series of dashboards that visualize the incoming real-time sales and product data, including filters that enable users to select a particular product, customer, geographic location, and more.

The results? Remarkable.

“I would say that, at a high level, the time savings has to be over 80 percent,” said Alexander. “The first thing we’re going to do is put up a dashboard in one of our common public areas within the company because we want everybody who works at Inorganic Ventures to immediately be able to see where we are.”

Employees will no longer navigate spreadsheets filled with tens of thousands of rows of data to answer fundamental questions about the business. The benefits go beyond time and cost savings, however, Alexander said. These dashboards not only inform company strategy, they also enable Inorganic Ventures’ employees to have a greater understanding of their role in the company’s success. “That’s something we’ve heard from our employees,” said Alexander. “They want to know that their efforts have significance and they want to know where we stand.”

Now more than ever, Inorganic Ventures’ employees can visualize the company’s success – and understand their role in making it possible. It was no surprise that the capstone team’s final presentation to the company sparked enthusiasm among employees. Several raised new ideas for future applications of data analytics. As Alexander put it, “The buzz in the building was palpable. [Our employees] saw that there were opportunities for their own jobs and their efforts to be more streamlined.”

The students in the 2022-23 MSBA-BA capstone team may have already accepted job offers and begun their careers, but Inorganic Ventures isn’t done yet: The company has signed on to sponsor another capstone project for this year’s 2023-24 cohort. Alexander has his sights set on the future. He believes that the soon-to-be-formed capstone team will help Inorganic Ventures uncover opportunities to improve production processes and accelerate the adoption of advanced lean manufacturing techniques.

A major contributor to Inorganic Venture’s decision to sponsor for a second year was the company’s positive experience working with the team of students. “What really impressed me is that the students were all extremely well-coached in giving presentations and professionalism,” Alexander said. “I’m really happy with the program, how well run it is, and the quality of the candidates and the students. And that’s why we’re re-upping, fundamentally. This has been great value for us.”

Beyond the business value and financial return on investment of this public-private partnership, Inorganic Ventures’ sponsorship of a capstone project represents a different kind of value for the Blacksburg-raised CTO. “I think the real value in these partnerships is helping people realize their potential — and not just the students, because we have learned from them as well. It’s not a one-way street when you are teaching or mentoring,” Alexander said.

With its location within the New River Valley, Inorganic Ventures has a vested interest in the flourishing of its community, including Virginia Tech. “This isn’t just about getting a group of students in to do some work for us and help us achieve our business objectives. This is about developing relationships that hopefully will last for years,” he said.

Proudly displayed on a central wall within Inorganic Ventures’ headquarters reads a guiding statement: “It’s always personal. Sometimes it’s business.”

In the case of Inorganic Ventures and its partnership with the Center for Business Analytics at Virginia Tech, it is most certainly both.

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– Jeremy Norman

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