From May 13 to June 6, 16 university and lab-based startups from CU Boulder and Colorado State University (CSU) dove into the world of customer discovery, participating in classroom lectures and workshops, networking with entrepreneurial mentors and conducting industry interviews.
The inaugural Research-to-Market (R2M) program—hosted by Venture Partners at CU Boulder in partnership with CSU and the Colorado Cleantech Industry Association (CCIA)—guided researchers-turned-startup founders through the iterative process of finding a product-market fit and refining a value proposition for their respective technologies.
Sally Hatcher, Commercialization Academy director, says the R2M program involves more than just classroom learning. For inventors, it offers the opportunity to “get out of the building,” engage with industry, and learn about potential customers, partners and competitors.
“We have technologists creating great innovations in the lab, but they don’t know how to interact with industry,” said Hatcher. “We want CU’s innovators to figure out what problems industry professionals have and then solve those problems. It’s important to not invent in a vacuum. If you can solve a real problem, people will support your work and buy your solution.”
Over the course of three weeks, participants attended three in-person sessions while simultaneously meeting with 18 mentors and scheduling interviews with 30 potential customers. The goal? To gain insight into industry needs and map out a commercialization strategy.
Participants were also tasked with presenting three four-minute pitches throughout R2M to course instructors Jean Redfield, Tom Teynor and Steve Albers. The instructors were hand-picked for having years of experience as startup founders, C-level executives and academic leaders, and also serve as national course instructors for the Department of Energy's Energy I-Corps program. After each pitch, all three gave immediate feedback so the startups could refine.
Telling stories with pictures rather than an excess of words was a key piece of advice the instructors emphasized. Redfield, Teynor and Albers explained that it’s more important to focus on why industry professionals should care about the problem a technology can solve for them rather than on the technology itself.
“R2M is a great way to work with scientists and engineers, help them build skills and challenge them in ways that maybe they haven’t been challenged before,” said Redfield. “We were thrilled in the amount of work these startups put in to polish their pitches and frame their value propositions appropriately.”
The range of technologies at R2M included everything from robots that could one day perform colonoscopies, to a bike lamp that backlights the rider for added visibility, to software algorithms that model complex supply chains and their greenhouse gas implications.
Arpeggio Biosciences, a CU Boulder spinout from the BioFrontiers Institute, is one of these companies. Its drug-screening platform uses a combination of enhancer RNAs and machine-learning artificial intelligence to aid in drug discovery and predict the effects of a drug on patients.
“This was an amazing program and impressive amount of work to organize,” said Joel Baskin, scientist with Arpeggio Biosciences. “Customer discovery wasn’t just a one-time exercise for me. It is now an ethos extending beyond commercialization and into my personal life.”
Susan Strong, an entrepreneur-in-residence with Venture Partners and principal of The Strong Group, attended all three days of R2M and noticed each startup made significant progress. “I don’t think anyone fully articulated their value proposition or truly understood who their customers were at the beginning of the program,” she said. “In three weeks we saw a huge difference and for that reason, startups shouldn't miss out on this program. I give it maybe 10 stars.”
Commercialization Network mentor Mike Connolly echoed Strong. “The R2M program provoked, educated and supplied techniques to help technical startups get real. Having these startups focus on the business model canvas, value proposition and customer discovery seems to illuminate viable next steps toward success.”