Biomedical Engineering Entrepreneurship Academy 2011

This morning our 2011 Biomedical Engineering Entrepreneurship Academy comes to close.  45 university research scientists from across the country, full professors to first year grad students, arrived on Monday morning with their research and the desire to see it become a reality. After an intensive week of work, they're pitching their proposed businesses for the first time and to a jury of potential investors.

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The Kitchen Table Test

Anyone in my position has seen somewhere in the low thousands of pitches. Everything from students to entrepreneurs to corporate intrapreneurs. I was struck by this recently, looking at someone present a chart of the size of their market and the rate at which customers would flock to this young venture’s offerings. When I questioned the numbers, he blustered on with full confidence.

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What’s the problem with LEDs?

LED lighting is clearly a path forward.  The challenge, as with all "promising but currently too expensive" new clean energy technologies is how to get from here (low volume, high costs) to there (high volume, low costs).  The bulk of cost reductions typically come from economies of scale, which moves industries down the learning curve. So what brings us the larger volumes?  Is it more government subsidies for research?  Is it regulations or rebates that drive market demand?  In a recent Technology Review article (LEDs Are Getting Ready for the Spotlight), Josie Garthwaite describes another option, which follows on my earlier post about finding new problems for old solutions.

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Finding new problems

What if innovation was not about solving problems?  This thought nags me whenever I'm forced to read about the grave responsibility of "innovation" to solve such persistent problems as climate change, healthcare, poverty, and education.  Or listening to how innovation might solve all of Acme, Incorporated's problems but especially that gaping hole in Q3 revenues for 2012, their obsolete technology platform, or declining share values.

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Leap by Committee

Déjà vu hit me in a recent faculty meeting as we were discussing whether to make a leap by launching a new and exciting program. Excepting the great view of the California central valley after a rainstorm, I could have been back in any number of fluorescent-lit corporate conference rooms across the country. The decision facing us: to approve or reject the proposed innovation. Before my eyes and regardless of the proposal’s merit, the very nature of our debate was creating the conditions for our leap to stumble badly.

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Creating startups the right way

I've posted earlier— Resources for creating entrepreneurs— on the great work by Steve Blank and, related, the Business Model Generation authors.  They continue to integrate and hone their message, and this new slide deck does a great job of communicating the core points:

1. No business plan survives first customer contact.

2. It's the business model, stupid.

3. Take time to think through the alternative possibilities.

4. A business model idea is just a set of hypotheses.

5. Don't build your company until you've verified your business model.

These are great points, articulated very well, and as appropriate in making the leap as in growing your startup effectively.  As is always the case, there is an iceberg underneath each of these points.  

What is innovation

I’ve never met anyone who was against innovation. Why is that? 

My hunch is because we are too lax with our words. Innovation, creativity, invention, and entrepreneurship are one-sided terms—they refer, typically, only to those successful outcomes we read about, enjoy in our daily lives, or look to for solving major problems like healthcare or global warming. Before talking any more about innovation and entrepreneurship, then, let’s make sure we’re talking about the right thing.

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Addendum to Forks in the Road

I posted earlier about the different ways that valuable ideas may come out of university research labs.  But this series of posts is as interested in how ideas, born inside large and established companies, can also emerge to have significant impacts on broader society. This may seem like an unnecessary charity—like helping corporate executives cross the street—but it’s not.  Large companies are arguably the most infertile ground in which to grow an idea into a new business. 

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Making research make a difference

Few young scientists enter their fields with a passion for endlessly pursuing grants, revising rejected papers, and abandoning fruitless experiments. We have had the pleasure of working with somewhere north of 500 researchers, young and old, and each one has been fueled by a common desire—to make a difference.

I talked earlier about the options for moving science and technology out of the university research laboratories and into broader use (Forks in the road).  The National Academies of Science recently created a working committee to review the current state of university intellectual property and make recommendations regarding its future.  While their recommendations are grist for another post, I wanted to point out their nice job in cataloging the many pathways by which ideas, generated in university labs, get out to make a difference in the world.

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