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July 2014

Building a Lehigh MSAF alumni network

A few days ago, I sent out an email to alumni of the Lehigh MSAF (Master of Science in Analytical Finance) program, of which I am co-director. Believe it or not, but that's not something anyone before I became co-director was in the habit of doing, due to other more pressing issues, a lack of dedicated resources and other complicated issues.  I immediately received automated "delivery failures" messages  for about 8% of the emails I sent, which I guess could happen easily if alumni forget to update their email addresses, and then I waited for some students to do what I asked them to do in the email, which is to submit class notes for a placement record I'm compiling for the program's 10th anniversary. I've only been co-director for 2 years, and one thing that drew my attention is that we don't have good information about where our graduates end up, so a goal of mine is to strengthen the alumni network to provide more value. 

I think there's a lost opportunity there, since MSAF graduates could help MSAF students or graduates - at the very least, they could communicate internship/job opportunities or circulate applicants' resumes. Anyway, one thing that really, really struck me in the class notes I got was that most of the answers came from our American students, while the vast majority of our alumni are Chinese. (The few Chinese alumni who did respond right away were US-based.) The discrepancy in answer rates was so enormous that it was obvious there was a systemic issue involving Chinese alumni, especially China-based. So I got on LinkedIn and tried to send messages to MSAF alumni I was connected to through the website, although a recent grad mentioned that many MSAF alums would probably stop using LinkedIn once they returned to China. (He didn't explain why, although I found this online.)

But the message that best provided a potential (although only partial) explanation for what was going on came from another recent Chinese alumnus, also Class of 2014. He might be wrong, and the following is simply his good-faith opinion, because I'd mentioned in my email I was having trouble reaching Chinese alumni. In hindsight, though, it'd make a lot of sense if it was true, and it matches what certain news outlets have been saying about a recent crackdown in China on Google products.

My former student wrote that access to Lehigh Gmail (i.e., the Lehigh email, which is on Google Apps) has been blocked in China, because (he thinks) the Chinese government won't allow Google to develop their business unless the US allows Huawei to enter the US market. That would explain why the Class of 2014 graduates, whom I had contacted on their Lehigh email addresses, are not responding unless they have remained in the US. From the narrow perspective of this post (about how best to serve alumni who have spent a lot of money, time and effort getting an advanced degree, and whose tuition money almost entirely finances the program), this also affects graduates who gave as contact email their "Lehigh alumni" email address for life because it's also hosted on Google Apps.

Further, in the list of email addresses I got for our alumni, quite a few provided independent (non-Lehigh) Gmail accounts, which would also be affected. Here are a few links I found about Google Apps in China: a Forrester blog post, a Google Enterprise blog post back from 2010, and the use of VPN to access Google services while traveling to China. Of course the information in there may be outdated and not reflect the current situation. In addition, not all the email addresses I have are Lehigh or Google-based. Some graduates may genuinely not want to answer. I'm still not clear why none of the Chinese alumni seems to have replied so far, except those I've reached out to via LinkedIn, and those tended not to be China-based. Even if some alumni no longer use the (still valid) email they provided, it doesn't explain the scale of the problem I have in contacting the China-based graduates. But at least it is quite clear that Lehigh email addresses are of little help when trying to reach them and I've got to find another way.

If you're not from China, maybe you're asking yourself: what is Huawei? Well, it turns out, Huawei is a telecom equipment and services company, also a manufacturer of smartphones. It got in the news in 2011 when it attempted to buy 3Leaf and was met in the US by concerns over national security. Huawei has strongly denied the allegations and recently announced its revenue over the first half of the year had grown a remarkable 19% due to strong domestic demand but also in Europe and the Middle East. I recommend this very recent WSJ article for a good read on the current situation. It is worth pointing out that China recently branded Apple's iPhone a security concern, so the situation doesn't seem to be evolving toward a fast resolution.

From my tiny perspective of MSAF co-director trying to deliver value for students and alumni paying over $40,000 in tuition for their degree (2014-15 numbers), it seems that reaching out to Chinese alumni is going to be more difficult than I anticipated. (The previous lack of outreach to program alumni compounds the problem, since they may not have seen the point in providing email addresses where they'd be easy to reach.)  I haven't lost hope I'll be able to get hold of them somehow - I might print out my email and send it via snail mail and see what happens. It's a pity we've lost touch with our graduates: all the students (including the Chinese students) I have taught in this Master's program have shown themselves eager to learn, thrilled to discover the US way of life, appreciative of their host country and determined to do superb work. Hopefully I'll find a way to give the Lehigh MSAF alumni the alumni network they deserve.


Minimum Viable Market Share for Empirical vs Stratified Medicine

In 2012, Mark Trusheim and his co-authors published an analysis in Personalized Medicine where they argued using a NPV framework that stratified drugs (drugs for patients with a specific biomarker, especially in oncology) face a very challenging financial outlook due to their smaller market potential. As a follow-up to that, I've attached a short case study I did that investigates the Minimum Viable Market Share for the scenarios in the Personalized Medicine paper under assumptions of earlier commercialization and shorter time to sales peak. It will be mostly of interest to healthcare finance professionals, and perhaps to undergraduates studying engineering economy. (It'd be a good homework problem, in fact.) The article ends on a "cliffhanger" (on my standards... healthcare finance is fascinating), since one of the six scenarios can't be made financially viable in my NPV setting. Thankfully, the work of my undergraduate research assistant Jillian Sloand last semester made important advances in addressing that, and I hope to be able to post our write-up online soon.