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With the events of the 2012 Oxford and Cambridge university boat race fresh in their minds - the race had to be stopped because of a protester in the water - teams from the two elite British universities will soon meet again. The event this time, however, will not be a sporting contest but a business battle.

At the end of this month four MBA teams, two from Oxford’s Saïd business school and two from the Judge at Cambridge, will pit their wits in a business strategy competition around designer foods. The “war game”, as it is dubbed, is a role-playing exercise in which two teams will each create a strategy for two different food companies and two more will do the same for pharmaceutical companies. The aim is to discover which type of company will win the battle for the increasingly fashionable sector of ‘nutraceuticals’.

The four companies involved in the competition will be Abbott Nutrition, Danone, GSK Consumer Healthcare and Nestlé Health Science, and senior representatives from the four companies will be there to help evaluate the strategies developed for their companies by the student teams.

The student teams, each with up to 10 participants, will be allocated their company randomly on the day, says Leonard Fuld, president of consultancy Fuld and Company, which organises these War Games for corporations and business schools. In recent years teams from US business schools such as Harvard, MIT, Wharton and Kellogg (see photo) have participated in these challenges.

In the first phase of the contest, teams are asked to develop a strategy for their allocated company and then scored on four criteria, he says: insight, accuracy, creativity and foresight. Then a spanner is thrown into the works - or a “plausible disruption” as Mr Fuld calls it. In the light of this new factor, teams have to re-evaluate their strategy.

“It gets pretty heated: the engagement is intense and detailed,” says Mr Fuld. He points out that the winning team is not necessarily the team representing the company that wins in the marketplace, but the team that develops the best strategy given the hand they are dealt. “What you have is a complex chess game,” says Mr Fuld. “They each have different capabilities and infrastructures.”

The companies really learn something from the students, says Mr Fuld and there are also clear advantages to the students. Bronson Toh, who is leading one of the teams from the Judge, formerly worked at GSK, but says that his team members come from lots of different backgrounds. Apart from the learning involved in the event, there is also the chance to impress prospective employers.

“I think that is on everyone’s minds,” says Mr Toh. “At the minimum there will be the chance to network with managers from these companies. If things work well, we might get a job out of it.”

That said, he has other motives for entering the competition. Unlike the boat race, where Cambridge claimed a pyrrhic victory, Mr Toh is clearly hoping the two Judge teams will will have a resounding victory over their long-term rivals.

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