Building a startup with a strong foundation begins with understanding your customer, the market need, and how your idea or product will fit. The Penn I-Corps program provides the tools (and up to $2,000) for Penn entrepreneurs looking to get a better handle on customer discovery and how they can apply it to their ideas.
PCI held the Fall Penn I-Corps program virtually, with five sessions delivered over eight weeks. We did substantial revisions to the content and delivery method based on the learnings from our first foray into online teaching in the Spring.
Of the twelve that participated, seven teams were in the Life Sciences area, and five in Physical Sciences. The innovation pursued a wide range of application areas, such as energy, mental health, women’s health, bone healing, drug manufacturing, and accessibility for the visually impaired.
Overall, we trained 28 faculty and students in customer discovery:
Postdoctoral Fellows: 2
Graduate Medical : 2
Graduate Masters: 8
Graduate Doctoral: 4
The participants came from six out of Penn’s twelve schools: Engineering (13), SAS (3), Medicine (3), Nursing School (2), Wharton (2), and Design (1). There were also two individuals from CHOP and two from John Hopkins University.
The course was co-taught by Tomás Isakowitz, Ph.D., Penn I-Corps manager, Elizabeth Mazahari, Managing Director at TEDCO Maryland Venture Fund, and Dean Chang, Assoc VP, Innovation & Entrepreneurship, University of Maryland.
Screenshot of one of the presentations
Taking advantage of the online delivery modality
Based on what we learned from the Spring 2020 course offering, we introduced several changes to the course delivery geared to take advantage of the virtual delivery platform. Interactive game-like exercises heightened interaction among participants resulting in an effective and fun way to teach otherwise complex customer discovery topics. These exercises are especially relevant to conducting customer interviews, a keystone of customer discovery.
We took advantage of the ability to break out into virtual rooms to enable small group meetings, which allowed participants to provide feedback and to learn from each other. The instructors facilitated and monitored the interactions in the various virtual rooms.
There is a sharp contrast with the Spring, where virtual delivery was an obstacle. Instead, this time it added to our portfolio of educational tools.
What teams learn
The I-Corps program covers how to articulate actionable Value Propositions for each team’s idea, starting with clearly defining:
the problem they address;
the customers they envision will purchase their solution; and
the advantages of the solution.
The goal is for the teams to delve into product-market fit, i.e., does anyone care sufficiently about the problems they address to adopt their solutions? To support this effectively, I-Corps teaches the teams to conduct Customer Discovery by reaching out directly to customers and interviewing them. During the course, we require teams to complete 20 interviews. Teams modify their ideas based on the feedback received. This approach enables determining in a short amount of time if there is a market for their innovations.
Two of the twelve teams discovered their ideas did not work and decided to abandon them. Although it sounds counterintuitive, finding that out is a valuable outcome. Doing so in less than two months instead of spending two years on it enables young entrepreneurs to devote their time to other projects that may succeed. Moreover, participants carry over to other projects the customer discovery methodology. Ten teams obtained important information with which to carry on with an improved business model.
The third session consisted of a panel composed of key stakeholders in the Philadelphia entrepreneurial ecosystem who discussed their startups’ experiences. Brett Topche, Managing Director at Red & Blue Ventures, and Barbara Schilberg, CEO of BioAdvance, provided insights into fund-raising, approaching and selecting investors, structuring startups as ongoing concerns, and thinking about equity structures. Laurie Actman from PCI moderated the panel.
Meet the teams
cNP-FRAX: therapeutic to shorten the rate of bone fracture healing.
COMET: Unguided online self-help exercises for mental health treatments, based on empirically validated techniques.
DOVE: A device that senses a severe opioid overdose and reverses the overdose with naloxone without the need for a bystander.
Forma: a haptic device that enables the visually impaired to fill out forms themselves in a confidential manner
Heart Failure Monitoring Socks: Heart failure monitoring socks identify worsening edema and fatigue due to heart failure and alert the patient to worsening symptoms.
Infini Fluidics: A microfluidic platform to manufacture injectable drug particles on a large scale.
Metal Light: a metal-based battery that provides stable output with low-noise for home electrical backup systems.
NewsMatrix: Quantify real-world predictions to build an objective, rational environment for more in-depth discussions and discredit fake news.
Recovery Box: we aggregate heat and cold therapy equipment into one space to enable rapid and effective soldiers’ recovery while in training. In doing so, we reduce attrition in the military, which is a crucial concern.
Roura: A wearable device that uses heating and massage to alleviate period pain
TemPower: A vaccine delivery carrier that uses a novel metal-based battery to keep vaccines at cold temperatures and so ensure they reach their destinations intact. Doing so is especially important in under-developed countries.
VascoVision: A wearable device to preemptively detect blood clot formation.
The next I-Corps course starts March 19
The Spring 2021 consists of five classes over seven weeks. They will be Fridays 9 am to 12:30 pm unless otherwise stated
3/19: Opening workshop and how to schedule interviews
3/26: Customers and Value Propositions
4/2: Customer Ecosystem and Workflow
4/9: Techniques for Successfully Conducting Interviews
4/16 from 12pm – 1pm: Entrepreneurial Panel and Connecting with Local Entrepreneurship
Week of 4/19: Field Work and Mandatory Office Hours (1/2 hrs. TBD)
4/30: Lessons Learned and Next Steps
If your interested in the Spring 2021 I-Corps program, applications are being accepted now. They are accepted on a rolling basis with the final deadline of Wednesday, February 24.
Still Not Sure? Register for an Upcoming Info Session
We will host several sessions via zoom to provide information about the I-Corps offering and to facilitate forming teams. You can attend even if you do not have an idea or a team.
To attend, register here. All sessions are 12 to 1 pm.