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Commercialization training: Can you teach a Ph.D. to fish for customers?

By Posted on July 5, 2015
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As an incubator, we work with some of the most remarkable, intelligent people on the planet, Ph.D.’s working at universities, national labs, start-ups and established firms. They bring us the most fascinating technologies seeking our opinion on its commercial viability. Keep in mind, these are often innovations that have stemmed from federal research funding programs (typically DOE, ARPA-E, DOD), and are often the best energy and transportation technologies our nation has to offer.

Why does it appear that so few of these well-funded breakthrough technologies are applied by industry? While the supporting data is hard to find, the reality is very few do reach true commercialization milestones. Why? The reasons are varied, but the answer is simple – they fail to find a customer!

Insert I-Corps, a commercialization training program launched a few years back by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The primary goal of I-Corps is to foster entrepreneurship that will lead to the commercialization of technology that has been supported previously by federally-funded research. The program is unique in that it prepares scientists and engineers to understand the value proposition of their technology in industry terms. The training program teaches this using the same methodology that the scientist is familiar with – the “experiment.”

First, you develop a “hypothesis” of what you believe the value proposition is to a specific customer, then you “test” it by reaching out to potential customers in that industry value chain to understand their needs for the technology, then “examine” the results of what you just heard. Using this typical research methodology, the program literally tests out the “business case” and adjustments are made as needed. Seems simple, right?

Believe it or not, it’s harder than you think. Start-ups and even well established firms fail to commercialize technologies all the time due to having an incorrect understanding of customer needs, pain points, product development process and supply chain dynamics. People often fail when they do not effectively dedicate enough time to “customer discovery” which is the foundation of the I-Corps program.

I refer to the process as “customer development through value discovery” – when done well. This is where you reach out to everyone possible in the value chain of the industry you believe to be interested in your technology, and dig deep to understand their “pain” or “gain” points, how their business works, how their value chain works, how technology is introduced to market, and more importantly, how value is generated for them and others in industry. The ultimate discovery from this process is revealing how your technology can help others in industry solve an existing problem (pain) or exploit a new opportunity (gain).

NextEnergy recently completed a customized I-Corps program designed specifically for energy and transportation technology developers. In collaboration with the University of Michigan’s Center for Entrepreneurship, NextEnergy designed customized curriculum unique to the energy and transportation industries. We had an impressive cohort of 16 promising teams representing researchers from universities, national labs, and start-ups from across the nation. NextEnergy utilized the strength of our industry relationships, connecting the cohort teams to the right people in our network that could provide guidance as they attempted to understand the value proposition of their innovations.

We organized over 100 industry connections for the I-Corps teams including a one-on-one industry advisor matchmaking session during the program. The I-Corps Energy and Transportation program, sponsored by the Department of Energy, served as a catalyst to accelerate each team’s understanding of the value of their technology to industry, advancing relationships with strategic partners, and setting them on a course for commercialization milestones.

To be clear, this program is not designed to help researchers advance their technology readiness level. That requires funding, time and hard work in the lab. Rather, this is an entrepreneurial training program designed to help researchers advance their commercialization readiness level. I am always fascinated at the end of the seven weeks how much progress teams make toward understanding the needs of industry, the problems their technology may solve, who would likely adopt their innovation, both why and under what conditions.

The impact this program has on academic researchers is fascinating. In many ways I believe it impacts the culture of our academic institutions. Their product has traditionally been “research” and I-Corps transforms their product to be “technology seeking value.”

The success of a program like this comes in many forms. Research teams, in some cases, will find enough value to start-up a company. In the customer discovery process, some will connect with strategic partners and license their technology as a pathway to commercialization. Some will simply build better industry relationships that will result in industry sponsored research through CRADAs (joint development agreements) thereby improving the relationships between industry and academic institutions. Even what appears to be a failure is in many respects a success. A researcher that learns there is limited or no value in the technology (the way they are currently developing it) is rewarded from the learning and can adjust their research to be more in line with industry needs and avoid potential wasteful federally funded spending in areas without much hope for commercialization.

So, can you teach a Ph.D. to fish for customers? I consider myself extremely fortunate and honored to work with so many of the nation’s finest academic experts. They are experts at fishing for scientific breakthroughs, fishing for compelling technical revelations, even fishing for funding that will support their important research work. It may strike some as odd that the most highly educated, most intelligent talent we have to offer in our academic institution need mentoring and support when it comes to understanding the value proposition of what they have created, but innovators by nature focus on the brilliance of their innovation and the development and perfection of their technology. In many cases they spend their time designing the rig, perfecting the perfect lure, but just like anyone else, they need to put the line in the water, again and again, being persistent and waiting for the right fish to bite. It is our hope that our latest I-Corps Energy and Transportation program teams land many big fish!

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