Steve Blank, designer, Customer Development method (aka lean launch pad)
When Subra Suresh was chosen to lead the National Science Foundation (NSF), in 2010, he saw that many of the pathbreaking discoveries developed through the agency’s grants weren’t finding their way to the marketplace, so he sought to foster better links between government and industry.
This, of course, was not an entirely new idea. Over the years, there have been numerous efforts, ranging from the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 to numerous initiatives to revamp technology transfer offices within government agencies, but nothing really seemed able to speed new discoveries out of the labs and into the marketplace.
This time, Suresh and his team decided that instead of reorganizing things inside the NSF, they would help scientists become entrepreneurs themselves, using a model that had already worked wonders in Silicon Valley. The result, a program called I-Corps, has proven to be so effective that Congress recently ordered its expansion. Here’s the story behind it.
An Idea Takes Shape
Errol Arkilic always knew he wanted to be en entrepreneur, but took an unconventional path to starting companies. Rather than launch a startup in his garage, he got a PhD in microelectromechanical systems at MIT. He then spent 6 years in Silicon Valley before and 8 years at NSF before Suresh tapped him to run the new program. However, Arkilic immediately saw that changes would have to be made to the initial vision.
“The original idea was to get academics and industry types into a room and the ‘magic will happen’ and I never thought that was going to work,” he told me. “I had a front row seat to over 400 commercialization projects and the common cause for failure was that people were creating solutions for problems that nobody cared about. That’s what we needed to change.”
By that time, he had been reading Steve Blank’s blog as well as his book, The Four Steps To The Epiphany, which would later spawn the Lean Startup movement. So he decided to call Steve up to see if he would be willing to help apply his principles to the work done at NSF. Much to Arkilic’s surprise, he found Steve intensely interested in the idea.
Soon, the program began to take shape. They designed an eight-week course to teach graduate students about Steve’s methods. The students would serve as entrepreneurial leads and would go through the course with their professors and a business mentor. Later, they would also partner with VentureWell, a nonprofit that focuses on accelerating innovation
Now they had a plan in place. The only thing left was to see if it would actually work.
From Product Development To Customer Development
One of the core tenets of Steve Blank’s philosophy is that startup founders always begin with a flawed idea. So the key to success is to identify the flaws and fix them before you run out of money. That’s why he advises founders to go out and talk to customers before they start work on building a product that no one wants to buy.
This harsh reality hit home to Adam Tilton of Rithmio on his very first day in the Innovation Corps program. As as a graduate student in the prestigious Coordinated Science Laboratory at the University of Illinois, he had developed algorithms for control systems for things like missiles and satellites that significantly outperformed the current technology.
He was certain his work had great business potential. So he worked hard to prepare his first presentation to the Innovation Corps panel, then practiced and honed it for a week. He fully expected to really wow everyone in the room with the sophisticated the solutions he had spent years designing. Surely, they would see that they had a real winner on their hands.
Unfortunately, the panel was not impressed. Instead, they gave him marching orders, “Go out and interview ten companies in this space and tell us if they really have any interest in buying this software,” they said.
It was a rude awakening. “They were like, ‘You’re not in the lab anymore. This is Silicon Valley. Go out and interview ten companies in this space before tomorrow and tell us if they really have any interest in buying this software,’” Tilton told me.
The turning point came when they saw an announcement for the Motion Tracking Developer’s Conference that was being held in San Francisco during the training program. Having no other ideas, they delayed their flights and bought the $200 tickets. It would prove to be an amazingly wise investment.
As luck would have it, wearable technology was just heating up and the two immediately saw how their algorithms could help create products that were vastly superior to what they saw at the conference. They started work on their new idea as soon as they got on the plane. By the time the flight landed in Chicago, they had already built a simulation of the product they wanted to build on Tilton’s laptop.