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Engineers learn to think like entrepreneurs

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The PlasmaCaps I-Corps Team

UC San Diego students take part in NSF I-Corps at the von Liebig Entrepreneurism Center

San Diego, CA, June 23, 2015 -- “PlasmaCaps – technology that enables Capacitors to store more energy,” reads the “What is it?” section on the first slide of UC San Diego nanoengineering graduate student Rajaram Narayanan’s PowerPoint presentation.  This simple explanation of Narayanan’s idea for a startup is designed to hook potential partners without addressing the technical aspects of the product. From there, Narayanan goes on to address “So what?” and “For whom?” – two fundamental questions that potential investors always ask.  Narayanan discovered this fact through an NSF-funded program run by the von Liebig Entrepreneurism Center at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering .

For more than a decade, the von Liebig Entrepreneurism Center at UC San Diego has been implementing programs and curricula that instruct faculty and students in entrepreneurial thinking. In 2013, the Center received a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to implement the Innovation Corps (I-Corps) curriculum and became one of the nation’s first I-Corps Sites.

I-Corps bridges the gap between idea formation and launching a startup through funding, mentoring and training in entrepreneurial thinking. As an NSF I-Corps Site, the von Liebig Entrepreneurism Center incubates about 30 projects a year and serves as a feeder for the national I-Corps program. The purpose of the program is to teach startup teams, which consist of three members: PI (principal investigator, typically a faculty member), EL (entrepreneurial lead, typically a graduate student) and an IM (industry or business mentor volunteer), to validate their business model before investing resources, time and money.

NSF gives I-Corps Sites quite a bit of freedom with regards to how they utilize the resources provided and how to teach the methodology. Rosibel Ochoa, Senior Executive Director, Entrepreneurism and Leadership Programs at the Jacobs School of Engineering, for example, decided to split the curriculum into two phases to give the mentors and teams more time to go deeper into the material.

Following an application process, students and teams that are selected for the ten-week Phase I are paired with a mentor and focus on customer discovery – ensuring that the technology is one that people are willing to pay for. If selected to move on to Phase II, participants spend another 10 weeks piecing together the elements needed to form a company. At the end of the two phases, advanced teams are referred to the national program.  

Narayanan and his PI, mechanical engineering professor Prabhakar Bandaru, were invited to apply to the national I-Corps program and were able to complete Phase I at UC San Diego before participating at the national level.

“At first, I was convinced that everybody would want to license my technology,” said Narayanan. “I had to realize that I had a solution that was looking for a problem.”

The realization came after 100+ interviews with customers and potential partners.

“My graduate advisor, mechanical engineering professor Prabhakar Bandaru, had been in touch with the largest manufacturer of ultracapacitors in the world for years, but I-Corps completely changed our approach,” said Narayanan. “Before I-Corps, we didn’t listen to the needs of the customer – our approach was, ‘Hey, we can improve your energy storage capacity! This is a really cool technology and you need to adopt it!’”

During Phase I of the program, students learn how to think about their idea or product from their customers’ point of view. Teams are tasked with conducting interviews each week – instead of pitching their technology, they listen to what the customer does and what they feel is holding them back.

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The team's first business model

“I-Corps taught me how to develop hypotheses about my business model, and then validate them with market insights from the interviews we conducted with potential customers,” said Narayanan. “Much like what we do in the lab, the feedback we received during the interviews was data that either validated or invalidated our hypotheses.”

Narayanan discovered that many of the companies he’d been in contact with prior to I-Corps were only interested after he changed his approach because he was able to tailor his business pitch and value proposition to meet a need.

“It will be around 18 months before we know if we have a viable startup,” said Narayanan. “Companies need to validate the technology themselves to decide if it is economically feasible and can be incorporated into their manufacturing process.”

The National I-Corps Competition

Narayanan’s business mentor, Kai Wenk-Wolff, gained experience with the national I-Corps program two years ago when he embarked on the journey as a mentor for Tortuga Logic, a von Liebig supported UC San Diego startup with a proprietary software designed to prevent cyber security breaches currently being incubated at EvoNexus.

“We began by watching a series of videos on how to build a startup” said Wenk-Wolff. “From there, we flew to Washington DC for three days of instruction from the teaching team.”

The video course is by well-known serial entrepreneur Steve Blank, and teaches its pupils how to rapidly develop and test ideas for their business model by gathering massive amounts of customer and marketplace feedback.

“A good number of startups fail because they do not validate their ideas early-on by talking to real-life customers,” said Wenk-Wolff. “The I-Corps program is based on this so-called ‘Lean Launchpad philosophy’.”

Wenk-Wolff says he wishes he’d learned that 20 years ago.

Even though the Lean Launchpad approach increases the chances that a startup will succeed, the national I-Corps program is tough. Participants are expected to conduct an average of 17 face-to-face interviews a week for six weeks. Interviews conducted over email are not acceptable, and phone interviews only on rare occasion.

For Tortuga Logic, the learning curve was steep. The team had developed an algorithm that allows chip designers to be confident that the chip design has no security vulnerabilities. For example, the software can prove that the entertainment system in an airplane can never interfere with the flight controls. Prior to this, manufacturers spent endless hours conducting trial-and-error experiments.

“For the first four weeks of the program, we thought there was a standard for chip security,” said Wenk-Wolff. “We were pitching the algorithm to companies by telling them they could prove that their chip meets the standard without wasting time conducting experiments. As it turns out, there isn’t any standard. That was a really important thing for us to learn, because it meant that our value proposition was obsolete.”

I-Corps at UC San Diego

Narayanan says that if he hadn’t gone through Phase I at UC San Diego, participating in the national I-Corps program would have been a lot tougher.

“The mentors teach you how to really know if your company is likely going to succeed or fail,” said Narayanan. “If you think it’s a no-go, that’s completely fine – just tell them why.”

For more information on the NSF I-Corps program at UC San Diego, check out this news release.

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Media Contacts

Deborah Jude
UC San Diego Center for Microbiome Innovation
Phone: 858-534-8390
djude@ucsd.edu

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