Helping university research count

It is always a pleasure when you have the opportunity to go out and share some of the experiences and learnings, you have had, to an audience who need the insights in order to improve their odds of turning ideas into successful startups.

I had such an opportunity the other day, when I visited the Panum Institute at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences at University of Copenhagen to talk about how to de-risk your business idea to a group of 60 Nordic researchers and ph.d.-students.

I thoroughly enjoy hanging out with researchers. One of the reasons is that I am deeply fascinated by what they do, how they work and how brilliant they are at coming up with novel discoveries. Part of my fascination is probably also that I know that I will never be in their league, and what is beyond reach somehow fascinates me.

But then there are – luckily – other things I think I am quite knowledgable about. One of those crucial areas is how to bridge the gap from the lab to the market, i.e. how to bring great research to life in the form of products and services that meet a real demand and can thus form the basis for a great business.

Getting in front of researchers to share that knowledge is key, I believe, because there is so much potential in ensuring that top class research gets a real life after the lab.

Today a lot of great research ends up in big corporations, and as such that is fine, because it ensures that the technology gets out there and gets used. But you have to ask yourself, what could happen if more of that research became spinouts in their own right creating new opportunities, new jobs and contributing to economic growth in society? That, to me, is the really exciting part.

For this to happen researchers need help. And a lot of it. When I meet young spinouts as part of the Danish Open Entrepreneurship programme, the spinouts fall into a couple of different buckets.

There are those that are really specialized, deeply techie and so niche, you just know it’s never going to be a company in itself but will most likely be acquired by some bigger corporate as a tech/IP acquisition.

And then there are those, where you immediately get a sense of how it could become a company in its own right with a product speaking clearly to a significant future customer base and with that the opportunity to actually create an impact and solving a problem.

Those are the interesting ones to me. And thus this is where I start to look deeper into the team. And what I see here is most often:

Deeply brilliant and experienced researchers with a big wish to see their research reach the market but with very little realistic idea about how to actually make that happen. Simply because they have never done it before, it’s not what they feel, they should be spending their time on, and – basically – it’s not what they should spend their time on.

This actually produces an interesting paradox. Because I would argue that when we talk about de-risking an idea for a startup, the process and structure you apply to that is actually very akin to the process you use, when you do research: You define a hypothesis, you test it using experiments, and you capture your learnings. And then you repeat, repeat and repeat until you have – hopefully – reached the intended outcome.

So you would argue that of all people, researchers are actually very well equipped to do de-risking for their own startups. Yet, a lot of the researchers struggle with this process. The reasons may wary, but I believe it has a lot to do with the fear of getting a ‘No’; the fear that what you have worked so hard on and been so committed to, will not get the anticipated reaction when you go outside the lab.

For the very same reason this is exactly where its great to get help from someone, who is not only more experienced about doing market research and de-risking but who is also not so personally attached to the research and technology in question. By admitting your own limitations and partnering up with someone to drive the external facing side of the emerging spinout, you may actually get very far with very little.

Why is that? Because the researcher already understands the mechanisms in de-risking, and you thus don’t have to spend time talking through the process and explain the mechanics. You can focus on getting the most critical hypothesis defined, design the experiments and capture the learnings. It can actually become quite an efficient process, and you could argue that only a little more than sheer mentoring for the researcher(s) could get you a long way.

However, mentoring is not enough. An equal commercial partner is needed for the researcher to increase the chances of ultimate startup success. And while getting help on the market de-risking in itself is a huge plus, the right people also bring a few other benefits that are equally important to the chances of success:

First of all, researchers need someone outside their research circle to help determine, when research and technology is ‘good enough’ to start testing. I seldom meet researchers who have a pragmatic view on this – the tendency is always to stay a bit longer in the lab, run yet another experiment, optimize the technology even further etc. In a worst case scenario what that essentially means is you can stay in the lab forever and never get the technology out to use.

Second – and a bit connected to the point above – researchers need someone to help them establish and secure a sense of urgency. While this is not the same thing as wanting to rush things through, it is about helping researchers figuring out how to get to market as quick as possible in order to both gather feedback and learnings from the market but also show investors that the case is on track to be viable.

Of course there are limitations as to what you can launch early, if you fx operate within a regulated industry, but the point is that there are always things you can do to start putting the spinout on the map, and researchers generally need help doing that.

Finally, a partner can help researchers deal with the very real issue that the envisioned outcome is by no means the same as the journey to get there. Too many researchers have the notion that the complex part of turning their research into a product that can be marketed is the actual research.

In fact, it often turns out that getting the product to market and commercializing it is every bit as complex, rocky and bumpy a journey as the research. Partners with experience in taking things to market know this because they have the battle scars themselves to prove it. Researchers don’t – by and large – have this and would thus be well advised to add this experience and expertise to their team early on. If for nothing else then at least for sparring them the pain of experiencing these hardships themselves. And potentially see their startup become an unnecessary casualty in the process.

So in summary, there is a lot of things, ‘business people’ can do to help researchers realize the full potential of their research. The right commercial people are just as important and valuable as materials needed in the lab to perform the actual research. They are each others yin and yang, and together they can achieve the outcome great researchers with a passion for affecting change have:

Making the research count where it’s needed.

(Photo by Diana Polekhina on Unsplash)

A new kind of rockstars

Until now it has been somewhat of an established truth that if you’re a software engineer, and you know your programming languages of choice really, really well, you can do pretty much anything;

You can bring new ideas to life, build new products, build new business even, if you’re an engineer with a keen interest in business as well.

On the flip side, business people have had a more rough time. Yes, they can get ideas, and yes they can sell products and run a business. But they have a hard, hard time building the actual products. For those they need the engineers.

It is all good. But maybe times are changing. Especially for the software engineers.

Because as Moores Law is nearing its end, chances are that the big advances in computing and innovation going forward is going to come from other places; from good old scientists working in labs on more material things that have little to do with what software can do in itself.

Thus a new dependency is created. Where business people used to be dependent on great software engineers to get anything done, software engineers will likely be growing a dependency on hard core scientists in order to make radical advancements that goes above and beyond what they can do themselves.

This will require a whole new level of collaboration across sectors and a mutual respect for what each skillset brings to the table. We will most likely see the ‘rockstar’ mantra vane and give place to a more collaborative and perhaps even humble approach, as we are to a certain extend moving into territory where no-one has been before, and where it would probably just be foolish to steam full ahead without taking the context and environment into account.

There is little doubt that these new collaborations will be able to do great things – and that they will need to in order to help us solve some of the massive challenges, we all have in front of us. And that those who can’t or won’t see this change coming is going to add new challenges to the ones, they already have.

(Photo by Science in HD on Unsplash)

Triangulating opportunity

Some people get great ideas out of nowhere. They just pop up at the most unusual times and places. Other people can spend weeks looking over the ocean hoping to catch onto something and eventually leave the beach empty handed.

And some people just have a basic fear of the blank sheet of paper – of getting started at all. They need help in order to get the mind juices working.

On that note here is a small idea that might get you started:

One of the things I have often found helpful is to look into different kinds of trends and then try to combine those to see what pops into my mind looking at it.

I call that the ‘triangulating opportunity’. And here is how it works:

You draw three overlapping circles on a blank sheet of paper – Lean Startup style but with a sizable overlapping area for notes.

Then in each circle you write down a trend, you have observed and/or read about – something you know to be true and not just the figment of your imagination. Do so with a headline and small comment on what makes you think the trend is interesting and worth diving into.

Once you have done that for all three circles, you start looking at the overlaps and intersection of all, and then you start thinking about what opportunities could arise from combining the different ones.

Now, it needs to be said that there are no firm rules for which trends go with which trends. It’s all up to you and you need to try and do the combination. In fact, you could argue that the more unusual pairings, you make, the bigger the opportunity to come up with some truly novel idea nobody has thought of before.

What could an example of three trends be?

Fx what would happen if you tried to find opportunities in the intersection between ‘Second hand’, ‘Local’, ‘Instant Delivery’? Could something come out of that? Something that draws on the best elements of all three? I don’t know, but the example is simple and should give you an idea of how this works?

No matter what you get out of it, you get one instant win: You get yourself away from thinking and brooding about something with nothing to show for it. You get an assisted start towards something – potentially – and that’s always better than – well – nothing at all.

(Photo by Kristopher Roller on Unsplash)

Excellence in failure

It sounds stupid, right? That there can be anything of excellence in failing. Because failure is just that, right? Failure.

But look at it this way:

If you don’t fail in anything, you don’t try anything. You never follow your curiosity to explore new things and new ways of doing new things.

Having said that there are different kinds of failure.

The bad kind is the kind of failure, where you just make the same mistakes over and over either because you don’t learn anything from it or you simply just don’t care. Don’t ever follow that path.

The good part of failure is where you take on new things, challenges, projects, dive in from the deep end without having a clear idea about how things turn out. When you fail in some or all elements, you learn what NOT to do the next time. And you build both experience and confidence in taking the leap the next time.

And that is a good thing. Because it’s when you take the leap into something new that you have the greatest opportunity for actually effecting change and creating a positive impact. And if you’re driven by that kind of thing, it’s precisely these things that will give you the feeling that you and what you do matter.

Looking at it this way, failure in itself becomes a stepping stone to learn from to get better and to succeed in the end with whatever you’re looking to succeed with. It doesn’t become something to avoid at all costs, holding both you, your team and your company back.

(Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash)

An age perspective

“You’re just too old!”

I hear it thrown around every once in a while. Not specifically at me but more as a general shoutout to voice dissatisfaction that someone simply just not ‘get it’.

But does age really have anything to do with it?

Of course not.

In fact I think quite the opposite is at play;

Using the age argument is like arguing “This time is different” about why something that was a bust in the past will be a success now or “We have the best tech” as a reason for why you’re going to win whenever you enter the market:

High risk arguments with little validity in data.

So if the “You’re too old” argument is a flawed one in itself, what can we use the difference in age for in an extended startup team?

Well, for one youth can be put to superb use – if applied with clear thought – towards something that other people might not think is possible doing. Because the big advantage to a lack of experience is that you don’t know what you’re entering into, and thus you’re more open to risk.

Just think at the warm stove the first time you touched it, because you didn’t really believe that it was too hot. You only did that once, right? And got the hard earned experience.

Youth also typically have an abundance of energy of the sort that comes with eagerness to get out in the world and do something and – for most – a basic lack of other substantial obligations (family, kids, mortgages etc).

So what does age bring to the table that could be fruitful to the young ones?

First of all experience. Not of the kind that stops great ideas in their tracks but the kind that helps the young guns avoid the most obvious pitfalls, so they can stear clear and get a cleaner path towards ultimate success. A kind of a mentor that gently guides without taking over control in any sort of way.

Second, a shoulder to cry on. Now, I do not necessarily mean that literally, although if that’s what’s needed, so be it. No, I mean it more in the sense of someone to talk to and seek support at when the going gets rough, nothing works out, the roof is falling in and you’re just generally feeling like an utter failure.

Because that’s exactly what you need at that point; someone you can went to – and be heard, respected and understood by someone who has most likely been there her-/himself.

So think of these things the next time you feel the urge to claim that people who don’t get you are just “Too old”.

(Photo by Paolo Bendandion Unsplash)

The crisis test

Do customers flood you with support calls when your service is down? Or is it more or less quiet?

If it’s the latter, you have a problem. Because then all indications are that your product doesn’t really mean much to your customers; they can easily do without it. Maybe they don’t even realize it’s not there anymore.

If on the other hand it’s the first, congratulations. Not on having issues but in having created something important enough for customers to register when it’s not there anymore and even complain about.

It is probably one of the best indications that you have achieved Product-Market Fit.

Of course you can’t rest on the laurels when you’re in a situation, where you product is not performing as it should. But while your struggling to get it back up and working again at least take some comfort from the fact that you have achieved something:

You have created something that matters to someone outside your immediate circle of family and friends.

Congratulations.

And now get it back up and working again.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

Your idea is not about you

One of the hardest things to do when you’re trying out an idea for a new venture is to separate your own feelings from the data.

After all, you probably came up with the idea because you thought it was great – perhaps even the greatest since sliced bread. And now you’re bringing it doubt and jeopardy by subjecting it to some sort of validation in the actual real world.

Frightening.

But fear not. Because chances are that not everything is wasted.

Your idea might still be great. But the present application of it is not the optimal one. Wouldn’t it then be rather nice to get that insight through data, so you can change the application and move towards the iteration that gives both you and your future customers most ‘bang for the buck’?

Of course it would.

But still; the idea of finding out that your initial idea wasn’t the optimal solution for your customers can hurt and sting. Just make sure you realize that that’s ok; it is all part of the plan.

After all it is about the application of the idea – not you as a person.

If you think it’s too much to deal with, and – more importantly – you’re in danger of closing your eyes to the data and just venture on with what you originally had in mind, consider getting some sort of outside help or perspective. Someone with a clean slate and a fresh pair of eyes, who can help put it to you more gently – but nonetheless put it to you.

It might prove to be one of the best investments, you can make.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)

Celebrate invalidation

There is one thing we often forget when we talk about validating ideas and business models for startups (or any other entity for that matter);

That it is also an accomplishment to invalidate something.

Usually we have a tendency to see things that didn’t work out as extremely wasteful from which only fractions can be saved for later use. If we’re lucky, that is.

Nothing could be more wrong.

Not only do we get immense learning when something doesn’t go according to plan. Here everything is only lost if we forget to put those learnings to good use the next time we venture into something new.

We also save precious time. Especially if we manage to get to the invalidation of an idea or a business model relatively quickly.

Why?

Because if we conclude that something is not worth doing, it’s better to get to that point sooner rather than later, so you don’t spend to much on something that is going nowhere.

Simple really.

Add to all of the above that one of the hardest things is to work diligently to try to destroy your own idea, before it gets to far, and the picture of invalidation as something to be celebrated every bit as much as successes are become that much clearer.

(Photo: Pixabay.com)