3 Days, 80 Scientists, 300 Customer Interviews

This week was the kick off of the University of Michigan Innovation Corps (I-Corps) summer session where 80 scientists, engineers and mentors gathered in Ann Arbor to participate in the 8-week entrepreneurial-immersion program developed by Steve Blank and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

For those not familiar with I-Corps, it is an intense entrepreneurial training program that puts researchers, entrepreneurial-leads and mentors (teams of 3) from Universities across the country through an intense simulation of a startup environment over an 8-week period.

The purpose of this program is to teach these teams the fundamentals of entrepreneurship via hands on learning using the Customer Development process and identify a potential business model that they can use to bring their technology to commercial availability.

We believe in learning by doing and the lectures were a small percentage of the time spent where a majority was reserved for “getting out of the building” data gathering via customer interviews, followed by regular team presentations and feedback sessions from the teaching team.

On day 1, the UM teaching team and the NSF both stressed that we would be pushing the teams outside their comfort zones, asking of them the impossible and, most importantly, holding them accountable.

Many of these researchers have only talked to a couple of customers prior to arriving in Ann Arbor despite having spent months, even years developing innovative and potentially disruptive technology.

By day 2, many of the teams had one-on-one conversations with more than 10 different potential customers.  Some had completed more than 20!

In all, 300 distinct customer one-on-one interviews were conducted in just 3 days and it was absolutely amazing to see the amount of data gathered, insights learned and, in many cases, assumptions shattered over such a short period of time.

The teams started early at 7:30 am each day and worked late into the night.  Office hours were scheduled to be held by the teaching team in the lobby of the Ann Arbor Sheraton hotel from 9-11pm but continued until 1:30am for some.

Speed and tempo ruled the day (and night).

As I mentioned, each team presented the results of their efforts each day in front of their peers and the teaching team.  The questions were fast and probing and observations were rapidly pointed out to the group on where each team was getting stuck, making break a through or floundering.

That said, this is only week 1 of the 8-week program each of these teams “volunteered” for.  Next week the pressure will continue and the teams will again be making 10 or more customer visits to test new hypothesis and discover new insights as they continue their search for the right business model for their unique technological innovation.

I can’t wait for August!

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