Marketing Genius

At D.C. I-Corps, researchers from George Washington University learn to think like entrepreneurs.

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Edmund Pendleton, director of the D.C. I-Corps regional node, speaks to the cohort at the course's opening event in October.
November 17, 2014

By Ruth Steinhardt

As new medical technology, the iDx might seem like a slam-dunk success. A handheld in-vitro diagnostic system, it can quickly provide emergency room doctors with unprecedentedly accurate lab-quality medical test results.

But as it turns out, the product market isn’t quite there yet—because urgent care providers have different priorities than scientists.

Doctors, under pressure to make quick decisions, “don’t care that much about accuracy,” said Baichen Li, a researcher in the George Washington University’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

The discovery came from Mr. Li’s participation in the D.C. I-Corps Boot Camp, a six-week course intended to help academics think and act like businesspeople. His team, which included Professor Zhenyu Li of the Nanophotonics and Microfluidics Lab in GW’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, was one of several dozen in the cohort.

I-Corps teams are either academics paired with seasoned entrepreneurs who help them look at their existing research as a consumer product or business students paired with federal research labs. The course emphasizes the Lean Startup methodology, which stresses being flexible and interviewing as many prospective customers as possible. The goal is to ensure that the problem a given product purports to solve is something potential buyers are looking for a way to address.

At the boot camp’s closing session Friday at Johns Hopkins University’s Montgomery County campus, teams from GW, Johns Hopkins, the University of Maryland and Virginia Tech laid out their processes, their pitfalls and the evolution of their products, ultimately coming to  “go” or “no-go” decisions on continuing to try to market their technology.

“The I-Corps program takes professors and graduate students who have invented something really cool and technically beautiful that solves some kind of scientific problem,” said Jim Chung, founding executive director for innovation and entrepreneurship at GW and a co-principal investigator for the D.C. I-Corps regional node. “But these inventors and researchers want to solve real-world problems, rather than just publishing a paper. So we teach them to go out there and find the problem that their technology will solve, and if they can’t find one, we teach them how to refocus.”

Narine Sarvazyan, a professor of pharmacology and physiology in GW’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences, and her team have been working on their revolutionary circulation aid, the MiniHeart, for months. But the I-Corps experience, she said, taught her some surprising things about her own technology.

For example, the market segment she had assumed the MiniHeart would target—elderly patients with deep-vein problems—was actually not a good fit, since such patients often are battling additional complications and may be hesitant to try new solutions. Dr. Sarvazyan’s team found that they had a much more promising potential market in younger patients whose sedentary lifestyles have led to circulation problems and in patients with lymph-circulation disorders like lymphedema, for which there is no effective treatment at present.

 “As engineers, we’re taught to solve every possible problem instead of looking at what people actually want,” said Ivan Suarez Castellanos, B.S. ’10, M.S. ’12, a doctoral candidate in GW’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. His team, Sonoinsulin, worked with ultrasound stimulation of pancreatic beta cells as a potential new treatment for diabetes. “In this program we learn how to really create a specific ecosystem of our customers and how to ask the proper questions. So now—since our device is in the early stages of development—as we continue, we can gear our research and development toward what we learned.”

Unfamiliar practices like cold calling also become less intimidating under the guidance of experienced mentors. Dr. Sarvazyan, whose team contacted 77 people to achieve the cohort’s highest interview count, added that the pressure to pursue contacts also had unexpected benefits, like connecting with busy people who might, once they had a chance to meet face-to-face, be eager to provide support and resources.

“Our main learning point, and I think everyone in this room would agree, is that it has really pushed us to go out and ask detailed, open-ended questions,” she said.

Teams that successfully complete the boot camp and decide to continue working on their products may apply for D.C. I-Corps’ Accelerator program for ongoing support.

“What we’re fundamentally trying to do here is change the way people do research,” said Edmund Pendleton, director of the D.C. I-Corps node.

“We’re not trying to pick individual winners or to say, ‘This technology is better than this technology,’” Mr. Chung agreed. “We’re trying to create a cohort of winners. So if they find that the product they’re working on right now isn’t a solution to an existing problem, we teach them to find the problems they can solve—so they can have a real-world impact.”