Note: This post was originally written by TechAlliance EIR Colin Macaulay.
Sidebar: I have been using my biotech startup experience to encourage new life-science entrepreneurs to develop their own technologies and to avoid some common pitfalls in their startup journeys. Through this mentoring process I have encountered several common issues that I try to explore in a series of short blogs. These are my own opinions and do not represent those of any institute, company, or client I may have worked with.
Part 1: It’s a Great Time to be an Entrepreneur
There has never been a better time for technical experts (scientists, doctors, engineers), business graduates, hackers, problem solvers or anyone else for that matter, to grasp the entrepreneurial reins and lead their new ideas or technologies to market. Unlike 20 years ago, there exists an entire startup ecosystem that is supported by both private and government institutions. Incubators, accelerators, non-profit organizations, service providers, and private equity investors (angel and venture capital) often work together to help new entrepreneurs on their startup journey.
At TechAlliance, like all regional innovation centres, we meet new entrepreneurs from many different backgrounds. They can be doctors, scientists, or engineers, inventing new medical devices, diagnostics, therapeutics, or manufacturing methods. They can be hackers of all types trying to improve lives by creating new digital technologies. Although entrepreneurs may come from a variety of backgrounds, they have one thing in common; they are all searching for a way to provide a product or service needed in the market and valued by its customers.
Most startup educational programs begin with teaching new entrepreneurs the innovation process. These programs go by a variety of names (e.g. design thinking, agile engineering), but most programs are variations on Steve Blank’s ubiquitously utilized approach to building a lean startup. This customer-focused, business model organized approach has been adopted by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and virtually every regional innovation centre, incubator and accelerator, where new entrepreneurs go to find educational programing, mentorship, and other forms of professional support.
When teaching the innovation process, most startup programs begin by focusing on the core elements of the business model: product-market fit and value proposition. Every entrepreneur needs to understand who their customers are, the problem they are trying to alleviate, and the value of their solution to the customer. Without these core elements in place, there is no business opportunity. It sounds like an obvious first step, but it is one that is often missed by new inventor/entrepreneurs. New inventors often show up in love with their technology and focused on optimizing its performance before validating whether any customer cares about it.
It is often faster and less expensive to test and validate the assumptions around product-market fit and value proposition than it is to optimize the performance of a new technology. Therefore, we strive to help entrepreneurs change their focus from technology development to business model development, to ensure a customer does care and there is a place in the market for the technology before too many resources go into its development. It has been repeatedly shown that having an astonishing technology backed by prestigious key opinion leaders, strong intellectual property protection, an elegant development strategy, and a compelling pitch deck, cannot overcome the absence of a paying customer.
If you have a technology to develop or are interested in learning more about the innovation process and entrepreneurship, visit your local innovation centre, incubator or accelerator. Most campuses now have their own incubators or accelerators; sometimes several each with a sector-specific focus. There are also enormous number of on-line resources available to help you get started. You can hear Steve Blank describe the basics of Business Model Canvas in his free Udacity course on How to Build a Startup. If you are in the London, Ontario area, you can sign up for the 10-week Entrepreneur 1.0 class offered every fall by TechAlliance in partnership with the Pierre L. Morrissette Institute for Entrepreneurship at the Ivey Business School. If you are not in the London area, you can take an online version of Entrepreneurship 101 through MaRS, who hosts many other valuable online and in-person resources for the new entrepreneur.