An autonomous sailing catamaran, a three-dimensional educational gaming application for science teachers and a low-cost method for testing pharmaceutical compound activity and toxicity were among the lean-startup-based business plans introduced by 20 entrepreneurial teams for the DC I-Corps kick-off on Monday.
The intensive three-day workshop hosted by the George Washington University provided a launching point for the inaugural seven-week DC I-Corps, a collaborative effort between GW, Virginia Tech and the University of Maryland.
The regional program, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, will support teams in refining their ideas using lean-startup methodology to prepare a “minimum viable product” with guidance from entrepreneurial experts.
"The methodology that guides our program focuses on early and rigorous testing of hypotheses in the company's earliest stages, building a minimum viable product, and incorporating constant customer feedback,” Director of the I-Corps Accelerator Dan Kunitz said. “Teams that participate in the program get out of the building and perform extensive interviews with prospective customers and partners to test their hypotheses.”
Researchers, entrepreneurs, professors, and medical and educational professionals were among the cohort of teams representing the Children’s National Medical Center, the George Washington University, Johns Hopkins University, George Mason University, Virginia Tech, University of Maryland, as well as the Emerging Technology Center, Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute (Mtech) and bwtech@UMBC.
Each team is composed of a faculty member, a student or post-doctoral student and a mentor that serves as either entrepreneurial lead, principal investigator or as a mentor.
Of the 39 applications received for the program, only 20 teams were selected. Nearly half of these teams are affiliated with GW.
The teams representing GW include CloudAdvisor, a system for predicting virtual machine cloud performance and recommending public cloud instances; Key Orthopedics, a three-dimensional printed polymer device for growing stem cells in bone and cartilage tissue; NanoChon, joint injury therapeutic technologies for extended and sustained biologic delivery; Small Spacecraft Micropropulsion, an advanced micro-cathode arc thruster for small satellites; and ToxSpec, a method for predicting pharmaceutical compound activity and toxicity.
Additionally, Kelly Swords, an adjunct instructor in pediatrics at GW is a part of team Chronokair, the creators of a smartphone tablet that can hold a patient's entire hospital course of treatment and history; Julia Finkel, a GW professor of anesthesiology and pediatrics, is a member of team SmartPupillometer, which provides a smartphone application to assess and measure pupillary measures; and Jonathan George, a Ph.D. student at GW, is the entrepreneurial lead for N5 Sensors Inc., which creates chemical sensors for industrial and environmental monitoring.
The diverse group of teams outlined business models and value propositions for products in the medical/health care, technology, education, and life and physical science industries.
A panel of DC I-Corps instructors and administrators, including Mr. Kunitz, GW Executive Director of the Office of Entrepreneurship Jim Chung and UMD Associate Vice President of Innovation and Entrepreneurship Dean Chang offered direct feedback on the products and the team’s “elevator pitches.”
"Many of the teams in the program do not have experience articulating their company's value proposition and defining their customer segments clearly concisely, and accurately,” Mr. Kunitz said. “Before we can talk in depth about partners, channels, profits and so on, we need to really challenge the thinking behind the value proposition and the customer segment that defines the product-market fit.”
The initial feedback was integral to the immersive experience of the DC I-Corps program, which is centered on improving the commerciality of products and services through experiential customer development interviews and other modules that simulate the start-up environment.
“I’m thrilled that these teams are getting closer to getting their inventions out of the lab and into the real world, where they can start making a difference in people’s lives,” Mr. Chung said. “The I-Corps methodology will inform the future research of the professors and graduate students to guide them to figure out better what real world problems to solve with their research.”
In addition to research in the field, the teams participated in lectures presented by Virginia Tech Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Studies Jack Lesko, Valhalla Partners Technology Partner Dan Gordon, DC I-Corps Director Edmund Pendleton and Teaching Assistant Brandy Nagel.
The seminars focused on customer development, best practices for customer discovery, value proposition, mentorship within startups and analysis of consumer bases.
"Our emphasis in the program is on the product-market fit,” Mr. Kunitz said. “We focus on a thorough customer discovery process that is structured and informed and gets the companies to listen carefully and build on what they learn."
Following the in-person, three-day sessions, the teams will complete 100 customer development interviews and participate in online sessions that will monitor their progress toward a “product-market fit.”