Friday, July 10, 2015

NSF I-Corps

Team "AutoEEG" - Me, Mentor Lou Bucelli, and
Grad Student / Entrepreneurial Lead Meysam Golmohammadi
This week I attended the NSF Innovation Corps (or I-Corps, for short) program. It was held in Chicago and attended by about 80 people. I-Corps is a program intended to teach researchers how to develop research creations for commercialization. NSF wants more of the science and engineering it funds to enter the marketplace, and so it is teaching academics how to be entrepreneurs. It follows the Steve Blank method, which as far as I can tell is similar or related to the Lean Startup approach.

The program instructors are all entrepreneurs. Each team includes three people: the Principal Investigator (the academic whose research lab birthed the technology), the Entrepreneurial Lead (typically a grad student or postdoc who will do the lions share of the business development), and a Mentor (an experienced entrepreneur who will guide the team). The program is seven weeks long. The kick-off week is held in person, followed by five weekly all-afternoon Webex meetings and lectures. Then we'll head back to Chicago on Week 7 for wrap-up meeting in person.

The main point of the program is to use the scientific method (data driven hypothesis testing) to discover who you customers are, what quantifiable value your product brings to them, and whether there is a viable pathway to deliver your technology to them. The trap academics fall into (we are told) is to have assumptions about what the customer wants. This leads many people to spend time solving a problem that customers might not care that much about, or that customers might not be able to use or integrate into their workflow, or pay for, etc. The only way to do this is to go out and talk to as many people as humanly possible to find out what their needs are, how they work, who makes financial decisions, etc etc. We are expected to interview at least 100 people at all levels of the customer pipeline over the next seven weeks. We've been given a pretty healthy budget to support us traveling around and meeting with people, but its still going to be hard (that's over 15 interviews per week!). The hypothesis-driven method makes a lot of sense. You make a hypothesis like "Neurologists at community hospitals are unhappy with how much time they spend reading EEGs". You can then test this hypothesis by speaking to neurologists, and depending on the outcome, set up another testable hypothesis. In this manner, you drill down until you understand which customer is feeling the worst pain that you can address (and that they can pay for).

The boot-camp was pretty brutal. For three days, all I had time to think about was how to advance our business concept. The set-up was similar to Shark Tank on TV. Our team would get up to discuss our technology and sometimes we'd get yelled at during our very first sentence. The honest was brutal, but also refreshing. The mantra was that we shouldn't be afraid to discover that our 'baby' is ugly :)

So I'm looking forward to the next seven weeks. We'll be busy, but hopefully we'll learn how to get a sustainable business launched...

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