The I-Corp program is a 6 week intensified teaching session administered and funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) for the purpose of helping new technology teams determine whether they have a potential technology based business. Because NSF awards $5 billion in grants annually to academic research, I-Corp was formed as a process to filter those funded discoveries as either commercially viable or nonviable. The program accepts a research team of 3-4 from the universities to be awarded a $50,000 grant. The grant must be used to fund travel expenses to the program and conduct travel to conduct interviews. The sole purpose was to educate the team how to perform market research thru 100 interviews of potential customers. Because the teams are vastly different in sophistication, I-Corp is extremely valuable to the majority and has limited value to other more business experience teams.
Recently, as a participating mentor to the QSM team form Northeastern, I found the I-Corp program to be both an eye opening experience for most teams and an enormous commitment for all involved. At the conclusion of the program, 100% of all participating teams departed with substantial self learned market feedback as to their next move and best course to follow. The feedback extracted was so valuable, that more than half of the technology companies who participated postponed their plans to start a company because it was determined that their specific technology was not ready for any current market. The remaining companies decided to pivot from their original position and were able to select a better direction for their fledgling company. The I-Corp process taught us all about value propositions, interview process, obtaining feedback and how to discover, refine and then validate the target markets.
In order to prepare for an interview, the teams were required to present the best value proposition that they believed would be derived by a future customer. The value proposition is actually the perceived benefit or benefits derived from their intended product or service. The wording of the proposition, often referred to as the “elevator pitch,” had to be briefly articulated with simplified terms that a layman can understand. The challenge issued was for technical scientists and engineers to describe the value proposition in low-tech terms.
The next step was to obtain in person or telephonic interviews using the value proposition in conjunction with carefully selected questions. This is essentially either cold calling or utilizing referrals from the team or from the prospects themselves. The requirement, 100 interviews in just 6 weeks time. This process is sheer persistence and hard work while maintaining a non-threatening professional friendly approach. The teams learned how long to conduct the interview for and how to effectively document the feedback. Feedback was analyzed weekly and was reported back to I-Corp as “what we learned this week.” At the end of the presentation, constructive comments, both positive and negative, were provided.
The final week was the process for each team to analyze all of the feedback, obstacles, costs, and the opportunities learned. If their value proposition was well received, and at least one market was clearly defined by multiple positive interviews, they had a runway to aim for. Armed with information from 100 interviews and feedback from the teaching team, the teams had to make a decision to either go forward as planned, go back to the lab for more data, or postpone plans to start a business altogether.
The I-Corp tactics, albeit quite rigorous, may be applied in to early mentor/ventures in HSE to varying degrees. A light approach with less interviews and less supervision would clearly benefit every new HSE venture, possibly with an extended program for those where the product to market feedback was still fuzzy.
Every venture should be mentored to develop a value proposition, obtain many quality interviews and define their market. In this way the venture can obtain critical market research much earlier in the process thus saving time and money, as well as increasing the likelihood of long-term success.
In conclusion, because I have been an entrepreneur, I was in total agreement with the content of the I-Corp syllabus, strategy, tactics and goals of the program. If I had an I-Corp like training prior to starting my first company, many costly mistakes and expenses could have been avoided. For that reason, I would encourage ventures, mentors, and HSE to consider adopting some type of modified yet formal I-Corp program for all new ventures at the onset of their mentoring program.