Aug 032012

It is too early to say whether the I-Corps way of breeding entrepreneurs will prove more successful than the technology-transfer approach.

ANYONE who has tried a hand at starting a high-tech business—seeking to turn a clever research idea into something customers will pay good money for—quickly learns that everything taught in business school is next to useless. The mistake is to think of start-ups as just smaller versions of established businesses. They are nothing of the sort.

Existing enterprises, even so-called SMEs (small-to-medium establishments), usually have no shortage of marketing and financial data. Their success depends on how well they execute their data-driven plans. Start-ups, by contrast, are faith-based organisations that survive on passion and belief—with nothing to go on but a bunch of hunches. To them, a business plan and a five-year forecast are largely irrelevant. As those who have done it will attest, no start-up’s business plan survives contact with the first customer.

The pilgrimage from garage to marketplace is a chaotic journey fraught with false starts, dead ends, redesigns, changes of heart, moments of elation punctuated by sloughs of despair. The path frequently doubles back on itself, disappears in thickets of regulation, gets stumped by internal doubts and disagreements. No surprise that, for every new venture that manages to turn an invention into a profitable innovation, hundreds of others fall by the wayside. Even then, only three out of 20 of those successful enough to attract angel or venture-capital investors make it beyond five years. The rest go bust, get sold or simply fade away.

There ought to be a better way of turning all that effort and passion into lasting value. Serial entrepreneur Steve Blank thinks there is. Mr Blank has spent the past 34 years in Silicon Valley, getting no fewer than eight start-ups off the ground. Over the past dozen years or so, he has also taught entrepreneurship at Stanford University, University of California at Berkeley and Columbia University. Lately, his Lean LaunchPad course at Stanford has been the model for an intriguing pilot programme called Innovation Corps (or I-Corps for short) which seeks to turn the traditional Silicon Valley start-up model on its head, and thereby reduce the woeful failure rate of new ventures.

With funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) as well as the Kauffman Foundation of Kansas City and the Deshpande Foundation of India, Mr Blank has designed I-Corps as a way of converting the most promising science and engineering projects in American universities into start-ups. The I-Corps teams, selected from science and engineering applicants who are current or former NSF grantees, comprise just a principal investigator (usually a tenured professor), a younger entrepreneurial lead (undergraduate, graduate or post-doctoral student) and an experienced entrepreneur or venture capitalist as a mentor. Each of the 100 or so teams has received a $50,000 to cover a crash course on how to avoid the pitfalls common to all new ventures.

What distinguishes an I-Corps start-up from a typical university spin-out is the way it forces researchers to stop fixating on the technology they have developed. New ventures, they are taught, are all about finding customers, what distribution channels to adopt, how to price the product, who to partner with, and more. From day one, the mantra is “get out of the lab”. Participating academics have to make countless cold calls to potential customers—something few research scientists and engineers have ever done in their professional lives and most initially find awkward.

Read more . . .

via The Economist

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