Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Bootcamping

I spent the latter part of last week in (check that: at) Lake Tahoe, serving as a mentor and judge for the Entrepreneurship Academy for Environmental Health. The mind-expanding event was hosted by UC Davis’ Center for Entrepreneurship and orchestrated by The Great Andy Hargadon. A few dozen post-docs and professors from 10 or so universities, including Columbia, Duke, UW, and several UC schools, participated. The scientists received training on the fundamentals of innovation, and then formed groups to germinate and extrapolate specific ideas. Cool stuff and immense latent value, spanning OTC cancer diagnostic kits to water treatment plant testing solutions. As always, I think I gleamed more than the participants.

The boot campers were scientists. While most had an eye on commercializing their research, and some aspired to be entrepreneurs, a few (predictably) were reluctant to innovate for the sake of capitalism. They create for science’s sake, and their curiosity lured them to the boot camp. A few interesting and common lessons:

  1. Simplify. Focus on solving a specific problem for a specific customer segment that has gotta have it (versus doing multiple things for multiple constituents with differing degrees of value).
  2. Tell a story. Commence your presentation/investor pitch with a story about your ah-ha, there’s a there there moment. And, presume your audience assumes your science works -- focus on the pragmatic side of your potential venture.
  3. Value. Do not undervalue your product or service, but it’s okay to give it away to prove your innovation (at the start). Several attendees proffered solutions with 5-to-10x efficacy at half the price. Remember (Warrant Buffet?), price is what people pay, value is what they get.
  4. Cui bono? Clearly, vividly understand who stands to gain, how they will gain, and why they will purchase your product or service (versus existing alternatives).
  5. Thinking versus doing. Thinking is essential, but there’s no value until you do (it). And, taking the plunge (transitioning from thinking to doing) is difficult.
  6. Capital x 4. Andy talked about the four kinds of capital new ventures need: financial, physical, intellectual, and social. The latter – social and professional networks, and the combinatorial value of making connections – is oftentimes overlooked or underestimated.
Andy wrapped up the conference with a story, anonymously recapping a conversation with a soon-to-retire professor. After 30-plus years of work, the prof reminisced about his legacy. His decades of research had failed to reach the market, and remorse (depravation?) had set in. Andy’s take-home: You do not need to be an entrepreneur to innovate, to commercially translate your science – there are many ways to bear and share the fruits of your labor.

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