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A new approach to customer discovery for I-Corps Energy and Transportation

By Posted on March 9, 2017

Jean Redfield
President & CEO

This year’s I-Corps Energy and Transportation (which will be the fourth cohort of innovators to participate in our unique spin-off of the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps commercialization training program) will offer a new twist on customer discovery.

The I-Corps curriculum has always approached customer discovery as a critical step in successfully commercializing energy and transportation technology. The importance of conducting this discovery early in the process is one of the reasons it is such a vital component to a program specifically geared toward university researchers and early stage companies.

An added challenge for energy and transportation tech businesses vs. a consumer product or app is that the “customer” is often not the end user—it’s an existing player somewhere in the customer value chain. So, the question we asked ourselves is, “how can we best connect our participating teams with the right people?”

In addition to providing access to NextEnergy’s robust network of industry experts, traditionally the program has built this process around teams “getting out of the building” to conduct at least 100 interviews to help them create, test and refine their “hypotheses” about their business. And while this model has been successful, we decided it may be time to view things from a different perspective in terms of what “out of the building” looks like.

While in recent years, the ability to connect virtually has become progressively easier, there is no better way to establish strong relationships, and dig deeper into customers’ wants and needs (and pain), than face-to-face interactions. With this in mind, and with a new focus on streamlining the program, this year’s cohort will be heading to a premier industry event to conduct most of their customer discovery activities. So, in addition to coordinating meetings with potential customers local to the Detroit area, or within easy access of their home base, they will be able to connect with a captive audience, comprised of customers from across the ecosystem, and representing a more diverse geography.

Our energy teams will be heading to the Smart Cities Connect Conference & Expo, June 25-28, 2017, in Austin Texas to connect with smart city leaders representing over 200 cities across the US who will be seeking innovative solutions.

Our transportation teams will attend the CAR Management Briefings Seminar, July 31 – August 3, 2017, in Traverse City, Michigan to connect with executive management from OEMs and suppliers along with others from the automotive and mobility ecosystem focused on issues impacting the industry.

Both of these events provide a unique environment to leverage the customer discovery process to gather the data that will help them gain a deeper knowledge of their customer ecosystems and uncover how decisions are made. They will also learn what is of value at any part of the chain (including the end user) and how that value gets spread across the chain in the form of price and cost. This is the information that is absolutely fundamental to understanding how to launch and grow energy or transportation technology-based businesses, and those that are willing to put in the time, will see the results.

For more information on I-Corps Energy & Transportation, and to apply, visit


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