Stymied

We’ve begun looking for a genie in a bottle. Startups are all about overcoming obstacles, so we’re optimistic. We’re also stymied.

Many see things and ask “Why?” Sometimes I see things and ask “WTF?” That happened last week in I-Corps, a program by the National Science Foundation for entrepreneurs who want to commercialize science.

Background. Humaginarium first tried to join I-Corps in 2016 but was stymied by a stipulation: academic teams only. Three of the four in our fellowship have taught in universities, one has performed large-scale, funded, postdoctoral research, and all are probably too smart for our own good (like most academics). However we’re not an academic team. So Humaginarium did not join I-Corps in 2016.

That stipulation changed in 2017 when NSF quietly announced “Phase 0” (zero). This is 2G I-Corps that admits non academic teams. We stepped up!

Phase 0 is an on ramp to Phase 1, a funded NSF SBIR activity that tests the feasibility of innovations. In a manner of speaking, in Phase 0 we determine if the world wants what we’ve imagined. In Phase 1 we figure out how to build it.

In February 2018 Humaginarium completed a Phase 0 prerequisite named Introduction to Customer Discovery at the University of Michigan. It was terrific! With encouragement from organizers we applied for Phase 0. Then we were stymied again.

Phase 0 teams must bring an “industry mentor” to the program. We found a good one, but he was rejected. Why? Because he was able to commit 60 hours to mentoring, rather than the required 105 hours, during our 6-7 week activity. He was able to spend four days, rather than the required seven days, in remote meetings and travel.

In addition to spending all that time, our mentor must be a senior professional with expertise and connections in industries of interest to Humaginarium: entertainment, health, life science, education. But a mentor isn’t employed or paid by Humaginarium or NSF. There is no compensation.

We’ve begun looking for this genie in a bottle. Startups are all about overcoming obstacles, so we remain optimistic though we’re stymied. Again.

La_Baigneuse_small

Scientific entertainment. Variation on La Grande Baigneuse, by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

Bivouac

We interviewed 35 stakeholders in our ecosystem: potential users and buyers of our video games, and influencers ranging from clinicians and scientists to health educators and organizers.

Humaginarium just completed the first leg of a vital expedition. We finished Introduction to Customer Discovery at the MWIN Midwest I-Corps Node. Right now we’re bivouacked on a narrow ledge under a brilliant star field. And we’re just below a rock face where the route leads upward: Phase Zero of I-Corps National.

For us Customer Discovery involved interviews with 35 stakeholders in our ecosystem: potential users and buyers of our video games, and influencers ranging from clinicians and scientists to health educators and organizers. We learned a lot about problems that haven’t been solved, needs that haven’t been met, constraints that haven’t been overcome, and desires that haven’t been satisfied by the status quo in health care and education.

One of the hardest things to do came first: narrowing our focus. Humaginarium wants to engage adult consumers of all kinds, but we had to define a precise market segment to avoid being swamped with data. So we chose consumers who have, or risk developing, type 2 diabetes.

Why type 2 diabetes? For technical reasons, because our computer model of that disease is ready to deploy. A lot of our foundational engineering exists. More importantly though, type 2 diabetes has social characteristics that made it eminently worthy of our attention:

  • It’s prevented, caused, controlled, even cured by patient agency
  • It’s hard to motivate patients to fight it, because it’s easy to ignore
  • It’s rampant and deadly
  • It will bankrupt individuals and the health care system if it isn’t stopped

Thanks to superb facilitators and coaches at the University of Michigan Center for Entrepreneurship, our bivouac is a good place to rest and reflect before the expedition continues.

Discovery

Customer discovery is about making ourselves worthy of customers.

Humaginarium is flourishing in the Winter 2018 cohort of Introduction to Customer Discovery. Flourishing, as in beating our heads against a wall until the wall breaks.

The Introduction to Customer Discovery Course runs from the MWIN Midwest I-Corps Node at the University of Michigan. Humaginarium founders arrive from Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Georgia for half-day workshops in Ann Arbor. We’re joined there by coaches, facilitators, and fellow climbers on the slopes of ingenuity. We also meet online for tough love with examiners.

Customer Discovery is the first and most soul-crushing step in The Four Steps of the Epiphany, a bible for tech startups by Stanford professor Steve Blank. He designed Innovation Corps for the National Science Foundation as an entrepreneurial boot camp for nerds and geeks. Ahem.

So what is customer discovery? It’s a methodical investigation that answers the question “Who cares?”

  • You have breakthrough ideas. Who cares?
  • You make things better. Who cares?
  • You change lives. Who cares?
  • You monetize like Midas. Who cares?

The starting point of inquiry is always the same: Nobody cares. If you manage to find somebody who does, voila you found a customer. If you find a lot more, you may be on to something. You’re chances are maybe 10%.

The fascination of customer discovery is the way it deconstructs entrepreneurs. The things they value — their stories, beliefs, expectations, assumptions, knowledge, practice, experience, titles, prerogatives, certificates, hubris — all of that is reframed as baggage. Most baggage gets tossed aside as the litter of past lives, not the building blocks of the future.

So is customer discovery about finding customers? No, not really. It’s more about finding and making ourselves worthy of customers. We see a snow-capped summit of innovation gleaming in the distance, getting closer with every anxious step we take. And soldier on.

The_Birth_of_Venus_detail_-_Zephyr_and_Chloris_small
Scientific entertainment. Variation on Zephyr and Chloris, by Sandro Botticelli (in The Birth of Venus)