Thursday, October 27, 2016


I‘ve just finished the three day kick-off of NSF I-Corps with the team from Sironix Renewables, a group spinning out from the University of Minnesota Chemical Engineering Department. They have a technology they think can revolutionize many formulas where a surfactant - think key ingredient in soap – is used. The kick-off was an intense and invigorating experience designed to replicate the pressure in a start-up  - where time and other resources are short and finding the correct product-market fit is a key first step to survival.  Here are some of the key highlights from this first step in our journey:


The program emphasizes talking face to face with people who you think will play some key role in the best market segment for your product, an activity called customer discovery.  Over the next seven weeks, we have to talk to 100 such folks!  We were in the heart of L.A. for our particular cohort and Sironix is thinking they might have a particularly valuable role to play in agricultural markets.  We had to drive to California farm country to even start discussions with our target interviewees. This burned up most of the allotted time to meet our goals (13 interviews in 12 hours). In my view, the extra time pressure made our team creative, efficient and surprisingly, made the people we were interviewing all the more willing to help us. Our talk with Brian at Tri-Cal in Oxnord, California (pictured below), capped our three days. With 15 minutes notice, off a referral from our previous stop, he gave us one and a half hours of his time – well past “quitting time” - and was a rich source of industry knowledge. It was a giant accomplishment we would have never believed we could achieve two days earlier…revealing “real world facts” that we would never have thought about on our own.

Sironix Renewables I-Corps team with Brian from Tri-Cal (left)


There were teams in our cohort that did well and some that didn’t do so well.  I would observe “not doing well” correlated highly with conducting interviews with other academics.  Academic markets tend to be distorted with subsidized $’s, other supports (access to people, buildings, and equipment) and restrictions that rarely repeat from site to site. They don’t really represent a market for most products - at least one that is repeatable or sizable.  If you’re constantly surrounding yourself with other academics and asking them if your idea has much potential, good luck.  You’re likely getting a falsely optimistic answer.  With rare exception, your idea needs the support of the world outside of academia to survive as a sustainable company and to deliver the benefits of your innovation to a significant population.


I was extremely proud of the young entrepreneurs on our team that were conducting our interviews. They were told to only ask about problems that the potential customers were having  - to listen, listen, and listen some more - to get a full and data-rich descriptions of the problem.  Never sell – or even reveal - your idea! When you’re validating product-market fit, you want to hear the problem your solution solves without giving the customer any clue about the answer you want to hear!  Our team let Brian talk about many things that built a picture of his industry, though diverging quite a bit from our main concern. Then, one hour and fifteen minutes into our visit, he said the key words we were waiting to hear. He described exactly the problem our team thinks they can solve and who cared about it.


Before I sign off, I want to say what an extraordinary opportunity I-Corps is for young researchers. Even if you don’t think commercialization is in your future. Trying to run your idea through this program will change the way you think…in a way that I believe will increase the value of research to our society.  Sure you can work on a scientifically interesting topic that may or may not have any relevance to society in your lifetime, get accolades from your peers, and then what?  Impact, in theory, can happen well past your time on earth, but such late “home runs” are exceedingly rare.  I’d rather see a bunch of base hits that impact society now! I-Corps can help increase the probability of these hits. If that sounds good to you, or if you recognize that tightening the link between research and near term benefits to society is increasingly important to granting agencies, TRY I-Corps!

I know there will be more to share as we continue our seven week journey. Check back. I’ll keep you posted on our big developments. 

To pursue NSF I-Corps further, contact: Carla Pavone,