Local Teams at SW I-Corps

Two McLennan SBDC teams recently explored the market potential of their early stage innovations in an intense Southwest I-Corps workshop at UT Austin.  Gus Welter, Lindsey Price, and Ilshat Ashatov of Blinc have a software development platform. Will McKerrall, John Fitch and Kristen McKerrall of Structural Health Data Systems have an infrastructure monitoring product. Both are in search of a business model.

I-Corps, short for ‘Innovation Corps’, is the rigorous market assessment and validation program pioneered by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to promote entrepreneurship and stimulate startup creation across the country.  It is based on key concepts from the lean startup movement like customer discovery and business model development.  

I-Corps is taught using a “flipped classroom.” All coursework is done prior to class to allow for student-led interaction and direct feedback from instructors. Teams are tasked with interviewing 20 or more potential customers in two weeks to determine “product-market fit” or whether a product solves a real market need.

This means, that after the opening workshop, teams spend a significant amount of time outside the classroom talking to potential customers about their business problems and needs. Teams reconvene for a closing workshop at the end of the two weeks to present their findings in a “lessons learned” workshop.

After spending considerable time in front of customers, McLennan teams came away with significant customer insights that have informed how they think about both their idea and next steps.  

In the words of Gus Welter, "I-Corps was a tectonic shift in our approach and understanding of what we have to do to succeed as a startup. The combination of the Lean Startup content from Steve Blank, etc. plus the brutally honest & challenging feedback is really powerful. From the standpoint of a startup, I-Corps is in a league of its own..."

Max Green, National Instructor with the Southwest NSF I-Corps node, led the intensive, two-week short course at the IC2 Institute in Austin on May 23 and June 6, 2016.  Photo: Aprille Raabe

Max Green, National Instructor with the Southwest NSF I-Corps node, led the intensive, two-week short course at the IC2 Institute in Austin on May 23 and June 6, 2016.  Photo: Aprille Raabe

McLennan SBDC at the White House

On March 29, 2016, the winners of the SBA Lean for Main Street Training Challenge met with presidential advisors from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.  Tom Kalil, Deputy Director of Technology and Innovation, Douglas Rand, Assistant Director for Entrepreneurship and Daniel Correa, Senior Advisor for Innovation Policy, invited Lean Challenge teams to exchange perspectives on the opportunities and challenges of teaching lean methodologies to traditional or "Main Street" business owners.

Jane Herndon of McLennan SBDC shared why adopting a lean approach may be even more critical to traditional business owners.  "Unlike a tech startup, the majority of Main Street entrepreneurs not only 'seed' their startup but continue to fund their businesses with their own money or that of friends and family.  Families, communities and local economies suffer when a small business has to shut its doors because its business assumptions don't pan out."  So, instead of launching one's company with a business plan full of unproven assumptions (guesswork), lean startup de-risks new venture or product introduction by emphasizing experimentation over elaborate planning, customer feedback over guesses, and placing "small bets" over big, up-front investment.  

The Small Business Administration (SBA) has a national network of resource partners who are uniquely well positioned to make lean tools and methodology accessible to small businesses in all corners of the country.  Through a partnership with the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps ("I-Corps") program, the SBA is training and building the capacity of five of its field assistance centers to become experts in I-Corps instruction and will work closely with them as they adapt and deliver new variations of the program to targeted audiences in their regions.  I-Corps, the curriculum developed by the National Science Foundation (NSF), provides a framework of principles and practices challenging conventional notions about business model planning.

Pictured from right: Jane Herndon, Mclennan SBDC; SBA representative; Tim Russell, Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center; Chris McGowan, Mclennan SBDC; Michael Wholihan, university of pittsburgh; April Gilbert, renaissance ENTREPRENEURSHIP center; eric hill, mississippi state; ray vargo, university of pittsburgh; nate segal, sba; mike pornovets, mississippi state VBOC; sba representative; erika franz, sba; charles mccaffrey, community business partnership; gisele Stolz, community business partnership; matt stevens, sba.

Pictured from right: Jane Herndon, Mclennan SBDC; SBA representative; Tim Russell, Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center; Chris McGowan, Mclennan SBDC; Michael Wholihan, university of pittsburgh; April Gilbert, renaissance ENTREPRENEURSHIP center; eric hill, mississippi state; ray vargo, university of pittsburgh; nate segal, sba; mike pornovets, mississippi state VBOC; sba representative; erika franz, sba; charles mccaffrey, community business partnership; gisele Stolz, community business partnership; matt stevens, sba.

Link to the SBA's Office of Entrepreneurial Development original announcement.