Scientists Unleashed

Some men see things as they are and ask why.
Others dream things that never were and ask why not.

George Bernard Shaw

We’re in the middle of our National Science Foundation Innovation Corps class – taking the most promising research projects in American university laboratories and teaching these scientists the basics of entrepreneurship. Our goal is to accelerate the commercialization of their inventions. Our Lean LaunchPad class teaches scientists and engineers that starting a company is another research project that can be solved by an iterative process of hypotheses testing and experimentation built around the business model / customer development / agile development solution stack. It’s “the scientific method” applied to startups.

Although I typically don’t write about a class while it’s going on, I had to share this extraordinary reflection that Satish Kandlikar, one of the National Science Foundation principal investigators, posted to our Lean LaunchPad class blog.

Satish Kandlikar – The Spirit of Entrepreneurship
Satish Kandlikar has been a professor in the mechanical engineering department at the Rochester Institute of Technology for the past twenty-one years. His research is focused in the areas of flow boiling, critical heat flux, contact line heat transfer, and advanced cooling techniques

His team, Akara Lighting, wants to build a device for LED lights that gets rid of heat 50% better than anything on the market. This would result in LED’s having a higher performance at a reduced cost.

Here’s what he had to say about his experience in the Lean LaunchPad class ….

“It is quite an eye-opening experience to transition from an academic “PI” (Principal Investigator) to someone who wants to run a technology start-up. The change in the mindset is perhaps the important factor on the path to success…

The teaching team is simply phenomenal in identifying the pitfalls in our path and guiding us in finding the solutions. They have shown us the other side of the equation from technology to market acceptability. We have been extremely fortunate in having this kind of guidance and support.

A key finding I would like to report is that we just had another “pivot” two days ago when our mentor brought to our attention that we can succeed as a heat pipe company providing thermal solutions to various LED products as well as other applications. I visited two companies, one providing data center cooling solutions, and other providing control panel cooling systems. Key alliances are expected to occur through these initial, very positive, contacts.

One fundamental change that I see in my approach going forward is that I am looking at the research in a totally different way. It is no longer, in my mind, a means to publishing papers and simply graduating students. It means now, to me, how the research can be applied to make products that are accepted in marketplace. Making students understand the entire process, to whatever extent I can influence them, and inspiring them to aspire for transferring their knowledge to products is becoming an important thrust in my classroom interactions.

Another eye-opener was on understanding communications. While making presentations in academic setting, it was more of a paper-based research with extension of knowledge, without too much understanding of its application. Knowing the audience was really not a factor. Now after making “cold-calls”, and seeing that there is a certain way to get them interested in just a few opening sentences, was simply amazing. Knowing what their needs are is a crucial step.

Now it is becoming clear what Steve meant when he said, “get out of the building”. It is clear that the building referred to our mindset more than the physical act of going out or simply contacting someone outside.

The purpose of this posting was to document my beginning of the transformation process from an academician to an entrepreneur. And I am definitely enjoying it.”

Scientists Unleashed
Over fifty years ago Silicon Valley was born in an era of applied experimentation driven by scientists and engineers. Fifty years from now, we’ll look back to this current decade as the beginning of another revolution, where scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs were integrated into the fabric of society faster than they had ever been before, unleashing a new era for a new American economy built on entrepreneurship and innovation.

And scientists like Satish Kandlikar and the National Science Foundation will lead the way.
Listen to the post here: Download the Podcast here

10 Responses

  1. Wonderful. just what i needed to read. thanks for posting Steve!

  2. Is this curriculum similar to what you teach Stanford students, or do you adapt it for the all-scientists audience? I’m curious because I’ve adapted your methods for our Top Gun program but I know there are research institutions where the cultural change needs to happen and I don’t think the training will be quite the same.

    • Great question and maps to my response to this post:

      This group sounds like a very different “class” from the regular lean-start up participants that you, Eric and others mentor…meaning that these teams have a unique, disruptive technology with strong IP…they have a tremendous opportunity to connect with and leverage a number of BIG, Global company open innovation initiatives.

      Open innovation initiatives may include fulfilling an existing market need, new product introductions or adaptation, or to access new market opportunities.

      A typical “Pricing & Plans” revenue generation strategy, combined with implementing the latest sales/marketing 2.0 tools is not the way to go with this group.


  3. I like what Dr. Kandlikar is saying about how “get out of the building” can also refer to acquiring a new mindset. The process of fitting a product to a market is also a process of adjusting our own mindset to empathize with the needs of our customers.

    Best of luck and bon voyage, professor Kandlikar!

  4. While I strongly support researchers becoming familiar with product development and commercialization, my experience in working with a wide spectrum of private sector, university and government laboratories is that it is typically a mistake to convert a scientist into an entrepreneur. The question is “Why take a great scientist and make him or her into a poor entrepreneur?” A superior alternative would be to team the scientist with an established company and move the innovation to market by technology transfer. Few scientists have either the desire or skills to become businesspeople. We have a shortage of scientists and engineers. Let’s let them do what they do best.

    • The US has few scientists & engineers because becoming one is very hard and pay is poorer relative to other fields (banking, fin, law, …).

      If many scientists become very rich by being great scientists and average entrepreneurs (I’d say it’s unlikely they’ll be poor entrepreneurs after this class), that’s going to be a huge motivator for people to get into science!

      And in most relationships between ‘established companies’ taking innovation to market, guess who makes the most money?

      As important, with the right market feedback (which is usually missing or very delayed in the tech transfer model), these scientists might end up building something entirely different and far more impactful than otherwise.

  5. Great stuff Steve.. I really need to get out of the building soon!

  6. Thanks Steve, after Eric Ries “The Lean Startup”, your Lean Launchpad class experience is truly an inspiring real-life example. ‘Pivot’ is a critical move in lean startup.The fundamental change that Satish Kandlikar finds in his approach- shifting it from just publishing papers to applying research, say ‘ validated learning’, for making products to be accepted in the marketplace- is truly remarkable, which eventually substantiates the concept of lean startup process.

    And sticking to lean start up, they “get out of the building”, referring” to our mindset more than the physical act of going out or simply contacting someone outside.”

    Thanks for sharing the views of Satish Kandlikar.

  7. I pioneered a science and technology entrepreneurship program called “STEP” in four countries of the former Soviet Union in the mid-2000s, which is still running today. The program uses micro-grant incentives and market plan pitch competitions to foster scientist-business partnerships that bring innovations to market. The program has been very successful and I’d love to talk to you about what you are doing?

    Pol Klein

  8. Great post as always. It seems that concepts around applying lean thinking and MVPs to research orientated products are in their infancy, but gaining momentum. Interestingly, a colleague and I recently posted our article of applying MVPs to biotechs and other industries:

    Any thoughts or feedback would be very much appreciated.


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