Innovation Squared

It is the genius of the obvious: applying the “Lean Launchpad” methodology of entrepreneurship to science-driven startups. 

It turns out there is not much difference between the scientific method (hypothesis / experiment / analysis / refine hypothesis / repeat) and the codified common sense business development strategy pioneered by serial entrepreneur and Stanford b-school legend Steve Blank (business hypothesis / field surveys / analysis / refine hypothesis). So why not put them together? 

Which is exactly what the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps program has done in an effort to speed up the commercialization of promising technologies developed in university labs. The inaugural class of 21 teams from across the country gathered for the very first demo day last week in Palo Alto.

The results are impressive. Notes Errol Arkilic, the NSF program officer overseeing I-Corps, “Some of these teams have made more progress in understanding what their opportunity is and repositioning their effort in six weeks than projects we’ve supported for six months.”

Xconomy’s Wade Roush has been covering the project since it was announced last summer. Here are his thumbnails describing some of the proto-businesses: 

  • TexCone (University of Virginia, Charlottesville: Laser-treated hydrophobic surfaces for reducing ice buildup on aircraft wings.
  • Ion Express (UCLA): Cheaper, simpler ion channel screening test systems for pharmaceutical companies.
  • BigData (George Washington University): Data mining for intelligence agencies and hedge-fund analysts.
  • Carbon Cultures (University of Washington): Conversion of timber waste into “biochar” for soil amendment.
  • Explosives Detection (University of Connecticut, Storrs): Nanocomposite materials that change their appearance under ultraviolet light when exposed to explosives.
  • Fluid Synchrony (USC): Miniaturized, implantable drug infusion pumps for control of chronic pain.
  • BiddingPal/iDecideFast (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign): Online tools based using psychological and decision science insights to help real-estate buyers and auction participants maximize their changes of submitting a winning bid.
  • Ground Fluor Pharmaceuticals (University of Nebraska, Lincoln): A cheaper, simpler system for synthesizing the radiopharmaceutical agents injected into patients before PET scans.
  • TOSCA (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute): “Terahertz on silicon chip arrays” for defense, aerospace, and security applications that require very fast on-chip processing.
  • GlucoSentient (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign): Technology that tweaks existing glucose meters to test for other health indicators such as HbA1C, a marker of diabetes.
  • Graphene Frontiers (University of Pennsylvania): A chemical vapor deposition method for growing sheets of carbon atoms on plastic or glass, for use as transparent conductors in solar panels, smart windows, or advanced displays.

Gracious. 

Even the losers—those teams that won’t go on to receive next stage NSF grants—are winners, emerging from the competition with tighter business models, better positioned to go after other funding. 

Although the “lean startup” mantra of continuous consumer research has its limits (Steve Jobs was famously allergic to focus groups, saying that consumers cannot imagine they need something that does not yet exist, e.g., an iPad), it works beautifully for innovations that focus on improvements to existing technologies or address specific, readily identifiable needs. 

Add Doblin’s Ten Types of Innovation to the mix as an analytical litmus test, both to rate the odds for success and point to areas where business models can be strengthened, and NSF could find itself with a startup success rate the envy of every VC fund. 

Nerds rule!

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"Startups are not smaller visions of larger companies. Large companies execute known business modules. But startups search for them," says Steve Blank. And to help startups better figure out how to find them, he offers a free online course through Stanford University called, "The Lean Launchpad." The next class starts February 2012.

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(updated 3/26/12)

I-Corps Slideshare Presentations:

— J.A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews

Startups…and Downs

Short answer: a mini-MBA, finishing school, geek-fest and gold rush. Color coordinated team t-shirts de rigueur. 

Long answer: see Hari Sreenivasan’s excellent overview for PBS Newshour"Can Tech Startup Schools Teach #TheNextBigThing? 

Simply put, why do in a year what can be done in three months? Business incubators look downright dowdy next to accelerators, whose very speediness lends a sense of urgent drama. They are glamorous, brimming with the seductive possibility of inst-tech celebrity: 15 minutes of Jobsian-style fame pitching a game-changing idea to a crowd of cheering colleagues.

Most accelerators focus on the tech sector, set up by investors who use them to cull the field, groom the likely, and get a piece of the next billion dollar brainstorm for pennies on the (potential) profits.

For the startups, accelerators offer validation, network and a short-cut to cash. Demand so far exceeds supply, some programs boast of being harder to get into than an Ivy League school.

Just making the cut is a win—especially in the Wonderland world of tech, where “failure” translates to “experience,” and “fail fast” is the ADD-tinged m.o.

People abroad think it’s really strange that you come to Silicon Valley and you ask people what they do and they start talking about all of their failures. What people here have learned is that it takes many failures before you achieve success. So the more you fail, the more likely it is you are going to succeed. This is what’s differentiated America from India and China and from Europe.

Vivek Wadhwa

Still, the hope is for success.

Yet for all the vetting and bonafide sparklers (I am looking at you Onswipe—and if anyone there wants to walk me through tweaking my tumblr CSS to use the service, please get in touch…), so many of the pitches are just painful.

Really, enough with the apps for pre-ordering food or tickets because, god forbid, you should ever have to stand in a line. Or apps that edit experience so you see only what an algorithm deems profitable (I am looking at you Immersive Labs and filter bubblers everywhere).

Those in favor of impatient, narrow-minded, stereotype-addled, materialistic misanthropes, please get in this line (though book ahead for a prime spot). Those who prefer the unpredictable tangle of serendipity and curiosity, come with me… 

For TechStars founder, David Cohen, the idea is almost an afterthought: 

Somebody might come in with the greatest idea in the world. That’s the last thing we look at. It doesn’t matter that much to us. We know that about half the companies are going through us are going to pivot and change the business that they’re going after. That’s incredibly common. Not just in this context, but in startups in general. So really you’re looking for people with the right skills, the right passion, the motivations to do a great job…

But the ideas really do make a difference. And now that it’s cheaper than ever to create and launch a tech product, here’s hoping for some great ones. 

Back in the ’90s, a typical startup had to go out and raise millions of dollars. Five, 10 or 15 million dollars just so they could go and buy the servers that they would need, so that people could find their services on the web. It’s now possible to raise $100,000 or $200,000 and, if your’e willing to “eat Ramen,” as they say, for a couple of years, that’s enough money to actually make real progress.”

— Wade Roush, Xconomy

H’mmm. The “Next Sure Thing” is Ramen?

— J.A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews