Meet Pouya Dianat, the Entrepreneurial Lead and the Chief Technology Officer at Nanograss Photonics, a company creating an opto-plasmonic receiver that facilities high-speed communications through 5G and beyond. Nanograss Photonics participated in the 2019 Winter I-Corps National Teams program.
Explain your innovation and how you came up with the idea.
Our technology is an opto-plasmonic receiver that facilitates high-speed tele/data communications for 5G and beyond. Specifically, we make high bandwidth photodetectors that enable integration engineers at optical chip manufacturers (Intel, Cisco, etc.) to design a failure-free circuit with 75% fewer components.
The idea of this detector was conceived in mid 2000s, however, the proof-of-concept and experimental results were achieved in 2014, as part of my PhD studies at Drexel University. In the lab, we worked to exploit laws of physics governing collective response of electrons to realize a new photodetector, through which we attained an unprecedented bandwidth that could not be achieved using conventionally used physics of individual electrons. Notably, having a higher bandwidth is increasingly in demand, with the advent of Internet-of-Things, Self-driving Vehicles, Streaming Services etc. That’s when we figured that there may be a commercial interest for the technology that we developed in the lab.
Introduce the Nanograss Photonics Team.
Nanograss Photonics (Team 1451 in I-Corps National Team program) includes me, Pouya Dianat, as the Entrepreneurial Lead, Bahram Nabet as the Technical Lead and Ed Hammel as our Industry Mentor. Bahram was my PhD advisor at Drexel University, and while I was completing the second year of my postdoctoral studies at Northwestern University, he invited me back to Philly to work on the commercialization of our opto-plasmonic technology. We initiated market study efforts, a process that was much different from academic research work, and necessitated a different skill set. We reached out to Ed, since I knew him through my personal network and he is a seasoned entrepreneur with familiarity with the nature of the market, and he agreed to join our team.
What made you and your team choose to participate in the I-Corps National Teams program?
We started our commercialization efforts in the spring of 2017 and did a number of pitches to raise funds. Our technology was very well received; however, we faced a key question in meetings, “Who are your customers?” We thought we knew the answer, but our responses were not adequate for investors.
Feeling completely frustrated, we received a golden advice from Drexel’s Director of Start-up Services, Shintaro Kaido, to participate at the Upstate New York I-Corps “short course” in the Summer of 2018. Through this program, we learned about the idea of value propositions and the process of customer discovery.
After the short course, we wanted to conduct more customer discovery, for instance to travel to customer sites and trade shows, but we lacked resources and funding to do that. With advice and support from the UNY instructors, Ken Rother and Andrea Ippolito, and the program director, Shannon Sullivan, we applied for the NSF I-Corps Teams national program.
In winter 2019, we completed the I-Corps national program in St. Louis, MO. This happened to be during the government shutdown. When we were informed about the shutdown, we were hopeful we would still receive our funding, but unfortunately that did not happen right away. We knew we needed to conduct customer discovery interview to further our research, so we used our entrepreneurial spirit and pooled our money to fund travel for customer discovery.
We conducted 104 interviews, a majority of them in-person, because I was able to travel to trade-shows all across the U.S. This process was not easy; I was taking day trips to California from the east coast to participate in trade shows; there were customers that refused to speak with me, and there were some who were totally skeptical, but as an entrepreneur, I had signed up to take up the challenge and I am glad I did it. I learned how to step out of my comfort zone and to listen to customers and hear their point of view and discover their needs, without trying to offer them a solution. At the end of the process, we identified the problems that the customers were seeking solutions for and we figured that our technology may be appealing for them. Finding a product-market fit was one of the biggest gains we got from the I-Corps program.
Can you describe a particularly tough or eye-opening customer discovery interview?
In the first two weeks I talked to a customer who made me question our value proposition. At first, our value proposition was that our technology provides a six-time higher bandwidth, but we were not hearing the need for higher bandwidth as a problem for our customers. When we asked them what their needs were and what caused pain points, none of them mentioned the bandwidth issue, which was a big feature of our device, so it caused a large amount of concern for us.
How did you pivot during this experience? Did you find a new customer or different value proposition?
Ed Hammel, our Industry Mentor, reminded to ask customers “What keeps you awake at night?” This turned to be the most important question to ask, as customers tend to open up easily to this question and share their pain points. I spoke to a customer in New York, asking this question, and she named design reliability as something she was constantly looking for. She particularly mentioned her biggest nightmare was to deal with her angry customers and the financial losses due to an unreliable design. Later I realized that I kept hearing “reliability” over and over again in interviews and I wasn’t paying enough attention to it. After that interview I realized that these customers needed a design that was more reliable not one with a higher bandwidth.
We narrowed our focus to reliability and tried to figure out how we could quantify that for potential customers. We decided this was the new direction we were going to take, so I went back to previous interviews and found ones that could help. I was talking to an engineer and I asked her how she could get to a more reliable design and she responded that she wanted her designs to be simpler. I dug deeper and she said if she could reduce the number of components in her design, it would be very helpful. At that point, we put two and two together and decided the solution we could provide and the value proposition for our customers was in providing them with a method that could make their design simpler.
What was the most valuable part of the National Teams program?
To gain a perspective over the market beyond a lab environment, to learn and identify the real pain points and demands in industry, and to be able to gauge whether our technology is market-ready or not. We made these realizations from getting out of our comfort zone, getting out of the building, and talking to customers. The teaching team (Blake Petty, Farzin Samadani, and Nancy Saucier) were phenomenal in conducting the course and holding us accountable each and every day and masterfully walked us through all the parts of a lean business model canvas.
What do you plan to do next with Nanograss Phototonics?
We are currently continuing the customer discovery process, as well as working on finding partners, resources, and key activities. We have applied the knowledge that we gained at I-Corps to continue our customer discovery work, and we have received seed grants from a couple of organizations in support of our commercialization efforts. Our “Go” decision is like a marathon that requires consistency, patience, and more hard data on customer pain points. We intend to apply for SBIR Phase I funding to make our technology into a product with buying customers.