Biotech Startups Vet their Ideas and Business Plans in I-Corps Short Course
After two weeks of intense workshops, mentoring from seasoned entrepreneurs and thirty-plus interviews with prospective customers, biotech startups in Cornell’s I-Corps Short Course had to present what they learned. Did people need their invention? Did their technology solve a real-world problem? Should they continue persuing their startup? Each startup had to decide whether it had identified a valid product market fit for its invention and whether it was time to continue growing as a business.
Cornell University recently hosted a biotechnology-focused National Science Foundation (NSF) I-Corps Short Course for startup founders and researchers with ideas for potential products and services. Throughout the NSF-funded program, startup teams are taught how to practice customer discovery—learning from potential customers about the market fit for their inventions. At the end of the program, the entrepreneurs revisit their initial hypotheses, construct a new value proposition, and revise their business plans.
“It’s been an excellent experience,” said Dr. Wilfrido Mojica, one of the program participants, and a professor at the University of Buffalo’s Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. “It allows you to do exactly what you’re supposed to do, which is validate, refute or pivot. It saves you money because you can vet your idea, which is the intention, and from the interviews that you’re forced to do, you see the market.”
Six teams participated in the program under the guidance of course instructors Michael Riedlinger and Ken Rother. Riedlinger is director of the Rochester BioVenture Center and the technology commercialization manager for High Tech Rochester, while Rother is an entrepreneur-in-residence at Rev: Ithaca Startup Works, managing director of eLab, and a visiting lecturer at Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management.
Several times during the event, Rother stressed one of I-Corps’ key learning concepts: entrepreneurs need to understand the problems that potential customers face, and then design solutions to those problems. It is much less effective to present the features of the product and leave it up to the customer to think of how it could benefit them.
“At this phase, it’s important to go out, talk to customers and understand the problems they’re facing before entering with your solution,” said Teddy Brinkofski, a senior at Cornell who was referred to the I-Corps program through the McGovern Center. “For that reason, the I-Corps Short Course has been very useful. Focusing on the problem has changed how I’m moving forward with my business concept. It’s made me more prepared to go out into the market.”
“As a scientist, I tend to gravitate towards the technical aspects of the company and I’m a little bit shy about going out and interviewing customers,” added Jonathan Alden, who earned his PhD in applied physics from Cornell in 2015. “Getting ideas about interview techniques and being forced to do the interviews has been really helpful.”
The concluding workshop for all I-Corps short courses is a highly-participatory day where each team presents what they learned to their peers and instructors. Group discussions often break out during the presentations and peer teams share tips and advice with one another.
“One of the great things about the format of I-Corps is that everyone is engaged, thinking and commenting,” said Riedlinger. “Everybody benefits from that.”
While Mojica acknowledged that it was nerve-racking to get direct feedback on his idea, he said that the experience would serve him well as he moves forward as an entrepreneur.
“That’s what you need, it’s the hard-cold truth,” he said. “My problem is distilling the information into clearer language. That’s what I need and that’s what I’ve gotten, so it’s perfect.”