By Sharon Tal-Itzkovitch
Think wide, stay focused:
In the Runway Startup Postdoc Program, we select PhD grads that wish to start a company by harnessing their deep tech expertise. These brilliant people need to go through a paradigm shift- from an academic mindset to an entrepreneurial outlook. It’s a shift that requires education and practice, but it's absolutely necessary for their success.
Entrepreneurial mindset from day 1
This is why we begin our program with a unique learning experience: a 5 day intensive workshop on how to discover the most valuable market opportunities for their innovation. This hands-on workshop presents a visual business tool- the Market Opportunity Navigator- to help postdocs in overviewing their potential markets, developing an open mindset that avoids locking in, and eventually setting a smart strategic focus.
The framework consists of 3 steps that are necessary for that matter: (1) how to identify different applications and target customers stemming from the core abilities of the startup; (2) how to evaluate different market opportunities to reveal the most attractive option; and (3) how to create a strategic plan that focuses on the most promising path but keeps you open minded and agile. Each of these steps is accompanied by a dedicated worksheet that lays out a structured process in a simple manner.
During the workshop, postdocs apply the Market Opportunity Navigator on their own business idea, and go through one full cycle of the process. Fernando Gomez-Baquero, director of Runway and Spinouts, says that this is an excellent opportunity for the postdocs to take a step back from their initial idea and open up to different directions that might be more promising: "participants often come with a specific product and market in mind, but these are unproven. This workshop helps them to define their unique abilities, understand what else may be in store for them, and learn how to validate these options. It clearly lays out all the questions that entrepreneurs must deal with before setting their strategy. It’s the students' role to find the answers, but we are now confident that they have the right tools to do so".
Combining planning and experimentation
The wide perspective that this workshop provides is essential before moving to the next step- validating a specific market opportunity through intensive customer interviews and minimum viable products. This is where the NSF I-Corps program comes in, and adds a great boost to the entrepreneurial shift of our postdocs.
Our entrepreneurs come more mature to this program, as they have already screened different strategic options and set their strategic boundaries to engage in more meaningful lean cycles of experimentation. Furthermore, if a business model turns out to be rejected, they can pivot more easily and more distantly.
Ardalan Khosrowpour, Runway postdoc, CEO of OnSiteIQ, and former I-Corps awardee stresses the complementing nature of these two approaches: "The Market Opportunity Navigator helped OnSiteIQ exit a local optimum market opportunity…It helped us take a step back from our laser-focused customer discovery and revisit our decision regarding the customer segments and the product-market fit before moving forward. I believe this is an excellent, crucial, and complementary method to Lean Startup by Steve Blank that should be implemented by all startups and especially for university spinoffs where the market opportunity is less clear than the core enabling technology."
Education is an ongoing process
Even after our postdocs go through these excellent training programs, we keep holding their hand as they perform the early steps of their entrepreneurial journey. We urge them to use their toolkit and apply these business tools overtime, to reflect on their learning. The systematic approach enables them not only to make smarter strategic choices, but also to discuss and debate with their team, mentors, and stakeholders. After all, structured means are vital in the chaotic process of bringing innovation to the market.