Impact! NYU Scales the Lean LaunchPad

NYU has adopted the Lean LaunchPad® class as a standard entrepreneurship course across twelve different schools/colleges within the University. Over 1,000 students a year are learning lean startup concepts.



In August 2011 I received an email from someone at NYU I never heard of. Frank Rimalovski, the Executive Director of the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute, had just read about the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (I-Corps) in my blog, and he absolutely had to meet me. To Frank’s credit he wouldn’t take no for an answer. When I said, “I’m too busy,” Frank said he’d fly out to fit into my schedule. When I said, “I’m at my ranch on the coast,” Frank promised to drive to Santa Cruz as soon as he get off the plane.

I figured any academic who was as persistent as an entrepreneur had earned my time.

So we met, and I learned a lot. First, I learned that Frank was not your typical academic. He was a career VC, now at NYU and charged with building an entrepreneurial ecosystem across the university. Frank’s goal in the meeting was to figure out how to ensure that NYU would be one of the new universities selected when the National Science Foundation scaled the Innovation Corps nationally. (The Innovation Corps, or I-Corps for short, is my Stanford Lean LaunchPad class offered by the National Science Foundation to our leading scientists. The Lean LaunchPad class teaches students how to build a Lean Startup using business model design, customer development and agile engineering. Teams have to get out of the building and talk to 10-15 customers a week.) I gave Frank the same advice I offered all the other universities who asked. But the difference was that Frank took it and made it part of the NYU proposal.

In 2012 NYU partnered with the City University of NY (CUNY) and Columbia University, and in early 2013 they won a grant from the National Science Foundation to build the Innovation Corps in New York City and jointly create the the NYC Regional Innovation Node (NYCRIN).

Spend it Wisely
As part of the National Science Foundation I-Corps program, NYU was responsible for training our country’s top scientists – and they’ve taught 170 of them so far.

But what NYU did with the rest of their grant dollars was simply brilliant. Over the last two years they used part of the National Science Foundation funds to send eight NYU faculty to California attend the Lean LaunchPad Educators program. (The Educators Program is a 2½ day class that teaches faculty how to create and teach their own Lean LaunchPad class.) In exchange the faculty had to agree to teach a Lean LaunchPad class at NYU within the next year. Unbelievably, they’ve delivered – and more. By this spring there will be 9 different Lean LaunchPad classes with 12 NYU instructors (and several more gearing up) teaching Lean at 12 of the schools/colleges within NYU. Some of these were brand new classes while others adapted existing business, design and engineering curricula to utilize the Lean approach.

NYU Lean 2

Spread it Widely
In two short years, the Lean LaunchPad has had a major impact on teaching entrepreneurship at NYU. Starting this year all 750 incoming freshman at the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering take the required Innovation and Technology Forum class. The class has been updated to cover the key elements of the Lean Startup (customer development, customer segments & value propositions, product/market fit, and minimal viable products)!

In addition, 165 students from twelve different schools/colleges within the University took the full Lean LaunchPad class this year. And in each of the past two summers 10 teams with 30 students participated in the NYU Summer Launchpad accelerator program. Frank even convinced me to come to New York and teach a five-day 10-hour-a-day Lean LaunchPad class with him and his team each August.

Student Impact
While classes offered and curriculums built are impressive, what really matters is whether we had any impact on the students. Did we open new eyes? Encourage new startups? Change lives? To my surprise the impact has been clear and immediate. A few of the students wrote blogs about their experience in the classes.  Here are a a few quotes that stand out:

Tlacael Esparza recently received his masters in music tech from NYU Steinhardt and is the co-founder of Sensory Percussion.  “…I found the idea of doing 10-15 customer interviews a week daunting and distracting. How can I commit to “getting out of the building” when I have so much more work to do building and improving our first product? … However, going through the customer development process showed me the danger in that kind of thinking. In talking to musicians and music producers…there was a lot to be learned about how our competitors’ products are perceived and used and how Sensory Percussion would fit into the current eco-system.” Read Tlacael’s blog post about his Summer Launchpad experience here.

Fang-Ke Huang is a postdoctoral fellow in NYU Langone Medical Center, applying the proteomic approach to understand the brain’s functionalities such as learning and memory.  “(The) class taught me not only the importance of customers, but also the application of the scientific method to the business model...I also learned that an entrepreneur should have a productive attitude towards setbacks. …, I started to view setbacks as a chance for feedback and as opportunities to redirect my efforts.”  Fang-Ke’s blog about the class is here.

Make it Better
Last but not least, Frank thought that neither the Four Steps to the Epiphany nor the Startup Owners Manual had enough specific advice on Customer Development. (Ouch.) I told him that if he thought he could do better he should write his own book. So Frank did. He collaborated with Giff Constable and wrote Talking to Humans: Success Starts with Understanding Your Customers to guide aspiring entrepreneurs through the process of securing, conducting and synthesizing early customer discovery interviews. And you know what? It is a great book. I used it in the I-Corps @ NIH program, and it’s now one of my class texts.

What’s Next?
From my time at NYU last summer, it was clear there is already a growing demand and interest from faculty and administrators alike to apply Lean in life science and healthcare at NYU. Now that the National Institute of Health has run an I-Corps class specifically targeted for Life Science and Healthcare (therapeutics, diagnostics, medical devices and digital health), there’s now a Lean LaunchPad curriculum for Frank’s next target –  bringing the Lean LaunchPad class into the NYU Medical Center in 2015

Lessons Learned

  • The National Science Foundation Innovation Corps has been a great investment for the country
  • It’s spurred a renaissance in entrepreneurial education
  • NYU has grabbed the opportunity with both hands
  • They’ve made one heck of an impact in just two years
  • I can’t wait to see what they do next

Watching My Students Grow

“You cannot teach a man anything, you can only help him find it within himself.”
Galileo Galilei

One of the great things about teaching is that while some students pass by like mist in the night others remain connected forever. I get to watch them grow into their careers and cheer them on.

Its been three and a half years since I first designed and taught the Lean LaunchPad class and lots of water has gone under the bridge since then. I’ve taught hundreds of teams, the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps has taught close to 400 teams led by our nations top scientists, and the class is being taught around the world.

But I still remember a team from the first class, one which wanted to build a robotic lawnmower. It’s now been over 3 years since the team has left my classroom and I thought I’d share with you what the two founders, Jorge Heraud and Lee Redden, learned then and what they’re doing now.

The Autonomous Lawnmower
They called their company Autonomow. And they were absolutely convinced what the world needed was an auto-driving lawn mover for institutions with large green spaces.

You can see their first slide deck in class below (and here)

Like in all our Lean Launchpad classes we teach a combination of theory coupled with intense and immersive experiential learning outside the classroom. Students need to get out of the building and talk to 10-15 customers a week.

The next week they came back in class and presented this:

Each week we’d teach them about one more part of what makes up a business model. All teams struggle with finding product/market fit.

By week four their presentation looked like this:

Notice something different about the cover slide? Massive pivot. Like all great Silicon Valley companies they started with a technology and guessed who the customers will be. They’re almost always wrong. They could have never figured this out sitting inside a classroom writing a business plan.

At week five (see here) they were actually getting into farm fields wearing hip boots and overalls. Now they were figuring out how to create demand.

The Customer Development process, this relentless drive to turn hypotheses into facts is what makes this learning so rapid.

At week six they were trying to figure out their distribution channel (here) after another pivot. They got their minimal viable product (a machine vision platform) up and running in the lab.

At week seven (here) another pivot happened when farmers taught them about how to price their product. Instead of an of selling hardware they were selling a service.

BTW, notice that they were now dragging their machine vision platform through the farm fields!  If there was ever any question of whether a minimal viable product can work for hardware, see what they say in their video below.

By week eight they were learning who they needed to partner with (see here). Most importantly they found a customer who taught them while weeding carrots was nice, thinning lettuce was where the money was.

After 9 weeks their final presentation looked like this.

When I teach in universities I’m not running an incubator. What I’m trying to do is to get students to learn a way of thinking about new ventures that will stick with them for life. And I try to do by having them teach themselves, rather than us teaching at them. Whether they start a company or not, I don’t keep score.

But some teams remain connected forever. I get to watch them grow into their careers and cheer them on. This was one of those teams. After class they took this idea and formed a company – Blue River Technology.

Over the last three years they turned their vision and PowerPoint slides into real hardware that solves real customer problems. And with 3 rounds of funding, including a grant from the National Science Foundation, they’ve raised $13 million.

Take a look and see what they’ve done.

If you can’t see the video click here

“The customers had way more insights then we had. They had been thinking about their own problems for so long…If you just go out and try to sell maybe you’ll find some buyers, but you won’t be learning about what you should be doing.”

Lee Redden – Blue River Technology


I’m off next week on the next great adventure. We’re going to launch the I-Corps @ NIH and change how our country commercializes life sciences.

The Woodstock of K-12 Education

Describing something as the “Woodstock of…” has taken to mean a one-of-a-kind historic gathering. It happened recently when a group of educators came to the ranch to learn how to teach Lean entrepreneurship to K-12 students.


We Can Do Better than Teaching Students How to Run a Lemonade Stand
Over the last few years it’s become clear that the days of teaching “how to write a business plan” as the cornerstone of university entrepreneurship are over. We now understand the distinction between startups – who search for a business model – versus existing companies – that execute a business plan. Learning how to keep track of inventory and cash flow and creating an income statement and a balance sheet are great skills to learn for managing existing businesses.

But to teach startup entrepreneurship we need to teach students new skills. They need to learn to find answers to questions like: who are my customers, what product features match customer needs, how do I create demand and what metrics matter? Learning these skills requires a very different type of entrepreneurship class, best taught through a hands-on, team-based, experiential approach. (The Lean LaunchPad/I-Corps class is the canonical model of such a class, with versions now taught in hundreds of colleges and universities.)

In addition, most programs fail to teach students the distinction between a lifestyle business, small business and scalable startup. While the core principles of lean work the same for building a small business versus a scalable startup, there is a big difference between size, scaling, risk, financing, decision-making, uncertainty, teams, etc.

Entrepreneurial education in grades K-12, if it exists at all still focuses on teaching potential entrepreneurs small business entrepreneurship – the equivalent of “how to run a lemonade stand.” This is fine if what we want to do is prepare our 21st-century students to run small businesses (a valid option), but it does real damage when students leave entrepreneurship classes thinking they’ve learned something about how entrepreneurs who build scalable startups think and operate.

On Fire With A Vision
In 2013, after taking the 2½-day “Lean LaunchPad for Educators” seminar, a few brave educators from Hawken School, a K-12 school in Cleveland, Ohio, decided to change the status quo. They returned to Hawken on fire with a vision of building a completely different sort of entrepreneurship course in their school. They saw the future was a course where students would learn by working on actual problems in the real world instead of sitting in a lecture hall. They adopted the Lean LaunchPad methodology because, as they said, it provides a framework for the chaos of a startup, where nothing is predictable. They found that they could approach teaching entrepreneurship like the scientific method. They ask their students to develop hypotheses and then get out of the classroom to conduct interviews to test them. They learn techniques for innovation, analytical approaches to research, and evidence-based systems for decision-making and problem-solving.

Teaching Other K-12 Educators
I had blogged about what Hawken learned implementing something this radical in High School here, and in middle school here. (Take a minute to look at the posts for context.) Honestly, I had never expected the Lean LaunchPad class to work so well in high school. But an even bigger surprise was when Doris Korda, Hawken’s program director, told me she was getting calls and emails from K-12 teachers across the country asking her to hold a “Hawken Lean LaunchPad for K-12 Educators” workshop.

So the Hawken teaching team took a deep breath and they offered this class – here at the K&S Ranch – so other educators could learn what Hawken is doing and how they’re doing it. Here’s what they were trying to accomplish.

If you can’t see the video click here

Thirty educators from 19 public and private schools throughout the U.S. attended their inaugural workshop.


These educators arrived at the ranch with a palpable sense of urgency, eager for the tools needed to build their own classes. There are no established Lean K-12 curricula, textbooks or handbooks for entrepreneurship programs. The class offered the first set of Lean educators’ materials anywhere. It took the attendees through the basics of Lean and how to build the class at their own schools.

The Hawken folks knew that in the back of the minds of other educators there was going to be the question, “Will this really work with my students? Can I really get them out of the classroom and expect real learning?” In what I thought was a stroke of genius, the Hawken team brought seven Hawken students who had taken the lean entrepreneurship class to help teach this educators course. These students told the attendees real world stories of how the class changed their lives and offered input and advice about what worked and didn’t for them.

The energy at the ranch was off the charts. Every minute was filled with talk about how to build this new model of learning and how to use LLP to encourage students to think creatively and analytically.

The attendees went back to their schools armed with a methodology and sample curriculum to develop their own entrepreneurship courses and put what they learned into practice. Some will take what they learned and apply Lean entrepreneurial principles to create innovate STEM programs and/or to encourage the growth of entrepreneurial ecosystems beyond school walls.

Here’s what some of them had to say about the experience:

If you can’t see the video click here

Jeremy Wickenheiser, a high school teacher with the Denver School of Science and Technology, a STEM public school serving 6,500 students, summed up the remarks we heard again and again: “This is the beginning of a movement to change how students learn.”

What’s Next
Encouraged by the attendees, Hawken is developing a comprehensive educational program for educators, with workshops on the East and West coasts, an educator’s handbook, and codified systems to help educators build their own experiential, LLP-based K-12 programs.

To learn about the workshops and sign up, click here.

Lessons Learned

  • The old ways of teaching entrepreneurship prepared students for small businesses
  • We needed a new educational approach to prepare them for scalable startups
  • Using the Lean LaunchPad, the Hawken School developed a successful entrepreneurship program for middle and high school students to do just that
  • Now they are teaching other educators how to do the same

Why Translational Medicine Will Never be The Same

There have been 2 or 3 courses in my entire education that have changed
the way I think.  This is one of those
Hobart Harris Professor and Chief, Division of General Surgery at UCSF

For the past three years the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps has been teaching our nations best scientists how to build a Lean Startup.  Close to 400 teams in robotics, computer science, materials science, geoscience, etc. have learned how to use business models, get out of the building to test their hypotheses and minimum viable product.

However, business models in the Life Sciences are a bit more complicated than those in software, web/mobile or hardware. Startups in the Life Sciences (therapeutics, diagnostics, devices, digital health, etc.) also have to understand the complexities of reimbursement, regulation, intellectual property and clinical trials.

Last fall we prototyped an I-Corps class for life sciences at UCSF with 25 teams. Hobart Harris led one of the teams.

What Hobart learned and how he learned it is why we’re about to launch the I-Corps @ NIH on Oct 6th.

If you can’t see the video click here

Translational medicine will never be the same.

Getting Lean in Education – By Getting Out of the Classroom

This week the National Science Foundation goes Lean on education by providing $1.2 million to educators who want to bring their classroom innovations to a wider audience.


The I-Corps program started when the U.S. National Science Foundation adopted my Lean LaunchPad class. Their goal was to train University scientists and researchers to use Lean Startup methods (business model design, customer development and agile engineering) to commercialize their science. Earlier this month the National Institutes of Health announced I-Corps @ NIH, to help scientists doing medical research take their innovations from the lab-bench to the bedside and accelerate translational medicine.

This week, the NSF is announcing the next step in the I-Corps program– I-Corps for Learning  (I-Corps L).  This version of I-Corps is for STEM educators – anyone  who teaches Science, Technology, Engineering and Math from kindergarten to graduate school, and wants to learn how to bring an innovative teaching strategy, technology, or set of curriculum materials to a wider audience. Following a successful pilot program, the NSF is backing the class with $1.2 million to fund the next 24 teams.

The Problem in the Classroom
A frustration common to both educators and policymakers is how difficult it has been to get new, innovative, education approaches into widespread use in classrooms where they can influence large numbers of students. While the federal government and corporations have dumped a ton of money into STEM education research, a disappointing few of these brave new ideas have made it into practice. These classroom innovations often remain effectively a secret – unknown to most STEM educators or the research community at large.

It turns out that on the whole educators are great innovators but have had a hard time translating their ideas into widespread adoption. What we had was a very slow classroom innovation diffusion rate.  Was there any was to speed this up?

A year ago Don Millard of the National Science Foundation (who in a previous life had been a STEM Educator) approached me with a hypothesis that possibly could solve this problem. Don observed that educators with innovative ideas who actively got out of their classrooms and tested their innovations with other educators/institutions/students had a much better adoption rate.

Up until now there was no formal way to replicate the skills of the educators who successfully evangelized their new concepts. Don’s insight was that the I-Corps model being rolled out for scientists might work equally well for educators/teachers. He pointed out that there was a close analogy between scientists trying to bring product discoveries to market and educators getting learning innovations into broad practice. Don thought that a formal Lean LaunchPad/I-Corps methodology might be exactly what educators needed to understand how their classroom innovations could be used, how to get other educators and institutions to adopt them, and how to articulate their value to potential investors .

Don then recruited Karl Smith from the University of Minnesota to pilot a class of 9 teams made up of STEM educators. Karl recruited a teaching team (Ann McKenna, Chris Swan, Russ Korte, Shawn Jordan, Micah Lande and Bob MacNeal) and Jerry Engel trained them. The team ran their first I-Corps for Learning class earlier this year.

Karl and his teaching team really nailed it. So much so that the NSF is now rolling out I-Corps for Learning on a larger scale.

I-Corps for Learning Details
NSF will provide up to $1.2 million to support 24 teams. The I-Corps L cohort teams will receive additional support — in the form of mentoring and funding — to accelerate innovation in learning that can be successfully scaled, in a sustainable manner.

To be eligible to pursue funding, applicants must have received a prior award from NSF (in a STEM education field relevant to the proposed innovation) that is currently active or that has been active within five years from the date of the proposal submission. Consideration will be given to projects that address K-12, undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral research, as well as learning in informal science education environments.

Each team will consist of:

  • The principal investigator (who received the prior award);
  • An entrepreneurial lead (who is committed to investigate the landscape surrounding the innovation); and
  • A mentor (who understands the evidence concerning promise, e.g., from an institutional education-focused center or commercial background that will help inform the efforts)

The outcomes of the pilot projects are expected to be threefold:

  • A clear go/no go decision concerning the viability and effectiveness of the learning-oriented resources/products, practices and services,
  • An implementation “product” and process for potential partners/adopters, and
  • A transition plan to move the effort forward and bring the innovation to scale

Proposals from potential I-Corps L teams will be accepted through September 30, 2014. Class starts January 2015.

Check out the I-Corps for Learning website here.

Lessons Learned

  • The diffusion of STEM classroom innovations is excruciatingly slow
  • The Lean LaunchPad/I-Corps model may accelerate that process
  • I-Corps for Learning is accepting applications

Validation: Be Sure Your Startup Vision Isn’t a Hallucination. 2 Minutes to See Why

If you can’t see the video click here

Customer Discovery: The Search for Product/Market Fit. 2 Minutes to See Why

If you can’t see the video click here


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