Can Startup Entrepreneurs Learn Something From a GOVERNMENT Program? This One Didn’t Suck. In Fact…

By: Mike Fritsch, Entrepreneur in Residence, Northeast Indiana Innovation Center

I just finished a 7-week government program (lucky me) designed for university researchers who are looking for federal grant money to help commercialize their technologies. Before they give them more money, the US Government (aka NSF) wants the researchers to figure out if the technology they developed is something anybody actually wants. What a novel concept for the government!

From their website: “The NSF Innovation Corps (I-Corps™) is a set of activities and programs that prepares scientists and engineers to extend their focus beyond the laboratory and broadens the impact of select, NSF-funded, basic-research projects”. …and by the way, let me start by saying “This is not an advertisement for I-CORPS™”, it’s just me expressing an opinion.

The process they use over the 7-week period is based on the standard business model canvas used by almost everyone nowadays. Since I have been teaching this process to entrepreneurs for almost 4 years, I thought I could teach the NSF a thing or two and would be bored as hell. Boy was I wrong!

I was the (non-university) mentor on the 3 man team which included a Principal Investigator (the university prof) and Entrepreneurial Lead (the grad student). The instructors spent the whole 7 weeks punching us in the face to knock real-world sense into a bunch of academics. It was awesome! I learned more in this 7 weeks than in any training session I have ever been a part of. Here’s a little of what I learned:

  1. You can never do too much customer discovery. Each team and their “cool everyone-needed-to-have-it” technology was required to complete 100 customer interviews to validate the customer pains and other guesses in the business model. It wasn’t enough.
  2. Academics (and probably all entrepreneurs) really have a hard time listening and not telling. They think they are already sure of the answer before they ask it. After all, why wouldn’t everyone want this cool thing they invented? It was very hard to get them to ask the question the right way. Instead of asking “What do you think of my cool technology?” asking “Tell me what your problems are?”
  3. Your prospective customers really do care a lot less than you do. It was difficult to hear, but it’s hard to beat inertia, the current way of doing things. Think about it. Do you always go out and by the next best thing out there?
  4. Face punching was required. I think a lot of university attendees thought “I’ll just cruise through this 7-week training, then I can go get my grant money”. No way. From day 1, it was a boot camp. No missed classes. No falling behind on interviews. No excuses. Change your know-it-all attitude about your technology’s market or you won’t make it. PhD? I don’t care.
  5. Every entrepreneur should have to go through this. What each team learned is the process that each entrepreneur should go through before they even start building anything. Validating: Customer Segments and their Value Propositions, Channels, Revenue Streams, Costs, Partners, etc. The elements of a business model. Getting out of the building and talking to real people about their problems.

I was extremely impressed with the process that NSF I-Corps™ created to get academic entrepreneurs to see past their noses. If you are building a business, check it out.



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