On May 20, 2013 a group of national experts in technology transfer convened in Washington, DC to discuss how to improve the nation’s effectiveness at bringing federally-funded research to market. Neil Kane was honored to be an invited guest at this Summit. A summary of the meeting was the topic of this month’s blog post on Tech Cocktail. A full copy of the report can be found on the home page for this blog www.beliefwithoutevidence.com in the Flash Widget in the lower right hand corner…you can download the report there.
Earlier today I got the opportunity to provide witness testimony for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Science Education in a hearing called Innovation Corp: A Review of a New National Science Foundation Program to Leverage Research Investments. The session was chaired by Mo Brooks of Alabama. The ranking member is Daniel Lipinski of Illinois. I was a Mentor in the first cohort of I-Corps in the fall of 2011 at Stanford University.
Also providing testimony were:
Dr. Thomas Peterson, Assistant Director, Directorate for Engineering, National Science Foundation
Mr. Steve Blank, Lecturer, Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley
Dr. Gabriel Popescu, Assistant Professor, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering,University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Dr. Andrew Mazar, Director, Program for Developmental Therapeutics and Entrepreneur-in-Residence Innovation and New Ventures Office, Northwestern University
My full testimony follows, and I’ve also posted a full .pdf file in the Box widget on the lower right hand corner of the page for easier downloading.
Testimony from Neil D. Kane, President, Illinois Partners Executive Services,
U.S. House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Research and Science Education,
Committee on Science, Space and Technology
Field Hearing: “Innovation Corps: A Review of a New National Science Foundation
Program to Leverage Research Investments”
Delivered July 16, 2012
I’d like to thank Chairman Brooks, Ranking Member Lipinski and the other members of the Committee for the privilege and honor to speak to you today. I represent on today’s panel the perspective of an Innovation Corps Mentor. Last fall our team, now known as GlucoSentient, Inc., was part of the first cohort of the Innovation Corps program.
You can think of me as the proverbial serial entrepreneur. With a degree in mechanical engineering and an MBA, I spent the first part of my career in large companies like IBM and Microsoft in a variety of engineering and customer facing roles. About 12 years ago I saw an opportunity to apply my technical and business experience to help researchers, typically from universities and federal laboratories, commercialize the fruits of their work. My involvement is sometimes as a consultant or advisor, and on more than a few occasions I have been the CEO of a startup company formed to commercialize this work. My focus tends to be on innovations derived from the engineering sciences with an emphasis on advanced materials and nanotechnology. On this journey I was the Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the Research Park at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and earlier I was co-Executive Director of the Illinois Technology Enterprise Center at Argonne National Laboratory. Through these efforts I was involved in the launching of innovative companies such as SolarBridge Technologies, a maker of micro-inverters for photovoltaic systems; Semprius, a leading flexible electronics company; and Advanced Diamond Technologies, a pioneer in the synthesis of diamond from natural gas. Together these companies have raised over $110 million. Currently I am involved in a number of projects, all based on university research, and I hope they become as successful as these companies.
A common way for startups to get going is by taking technology invented at a university (or federal laboratory or similar public institution) and “transferring” it to the commercial sector by creating a startup company whose main mission is to develop the technology and turn it into a viable business. Frequently the university inventors of the technology are also founders of the startup company.
I’ve met many people pursing this path of forming companies, especially those people who were with me in the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps program. There were 21 teams in our class at Stanford University, and those that will now be starting companies, which is most of them, will need to license technology from their associated universities.
I’ve been through this process many times. Like all things, one gets better at it with experience. But the first time I had to license technology I felt very vulnerable because I had no idea what I was doing, nor what my expectations should be, whereas the university had decades of experience, hundreds of transactions to reference and lots of data they could use. Here are some guidelines that may be helpful if you’re doing this for the first time.
We’re a few weeks into the Lean Launchpad Class, NSF Innovation Corps edition, and one phrase comes up over and over again by the instructors: Get Out of the Building. This simple phrase directs the teams to go figure out what their customers need and want, and suggests it can’t be done by researching on the internet or talking to second hand sources. It reminds me of the old phrase, “You can’t learn to swim at the library.”
One of the privileges of being in the class is being able to watch the twenty other teams figure out who their customers are and what their value proposition is. This is part of the customer discovery process. Even though I feel as though I figured out much of this in the school of hard knocks through many startups, the class puts structure around the process which is very useful.Still, we’re finding for our team, which is working on an innovative biosensor technology, the process is not easy. It is filled with frustrations and the need to backtrack after going down blind alleys. The great value of the program, though, is that we’re doing this work without spending any money. If we can find the right opportunity space, it will be fully validated by the time we go looking for money. Not only will our chances for raising money be much higher, we will have saved a lot of burn in the process. Add me the growing list of people who are becoming disciples of this methodology.
Just a week ago I was mentoring a student who is part of the University of Illinois’ Illinois Launch program. It was clear that although he had an idea for a business, he had not done anything to test the concept among the many stakeholders that would need to buy into his vision for his company to become a success. I think in the past I would have questioned his assumptions and challenged him on why he thought the world needed his products. Instead I found myself saying to him, “You need to get out of the building” and go talk to your prospective customers. Will they want what you have to offer? Will they pay for it? How are they getting the service today? How will they justify paying for it? I didn’t have to challenge him on anything, but he was very motivated to look where my finger was pointing, and he emailed me the next day thanking me for the great advice and encouragement.
In just a few short weeks a decade of experience in customer discovery has been reduced to one simple phrase. If you are in the process of launching a new company (or even just a new product), you need to go talk to your customers by getting out of the building.