Entrepreneurs are Everywhere Show No. 42: Sunny Shah and Curt Haselton

We as researchers go in with a bias – that obviously these guys want our technology – but that is not the case for a lot of customers. What you think about your technology is great, but at the end of the day you’re not the one buying it.

It was intimidating from day one. I am good with doing research and doing experiments but talking to customers is not my forte.

Scientific research it is hypothesis-driven. You’re just guessing and then trying to prove it true or false. This whole commercialization side of things is not that much different

For scientific researchers who want to commercialize their technology, doing a startup first pulls them out of their comfort zone. But then the Lean Startup’s scientific method of validating their business idea quickly has them feeling right at home.

What it’s like to go from the comfort of the lab bench to the chaos of a startup was the focus of the guests on today’s Entrepreneurs are Everywhere radio show.

The show follows the journeys of founders who share what it takes to build a startup – from restaurants to rocket scientists, to online gifts to online groceries and more. The program examines the DNA of entrepreneurs: what makes them tick, how they came up with their ideas; and explores the habits that make them successful, and the highs and lows that pushed them forward.


Sunny Shah

Joining me in the Stanford University studio were


Curt Haselton

Listen to my full interviews with Sunny and Curt by downloading them from SoundCloud here and here.

(And download any of the past shows here.)

Clips from their interviews are below.

Sunny Shah is an Assistant Director for the ESTEEM Graduate Program at the University of Notre Dame.  In addition he conducts research with Dr. Hsueh Chia Chang in Chemical Engineering. Sunny received his Ph.D. from University of California, Davis in Biomedical Engineering. For his doctoral work, his research focused on liver tissue engineering and stem cell differentiation.

Sunny’s startup idea emerged from a diagnostic tool he’d developed in his lab to detect pathogens. He thought it might have an application in the food service industry and so leapt at the chance to join the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps.

He was initially overwhelmed:

It was intimidating from day one. I was out of my comfort zone. I am good with doing research and doing experiments but here there are these four teaching faculty trying to infuse into us to find the need and then see if your problem fits the need.

The only way to do that is by going out and talking to the customers who would eventually buy this. We’re used to just talking to scientists, but here they were asking us in six weeks to do a 100 interviews. Not on the phone, not over Skype but in-person interviews with potential customers.

I’ve never talked to people at food processing plants and meat processing plants.

On our flight back from the workshop, I was trying to come up with excuses to drop out of the program. I thought, ‘This is not something I signed up for. I’m interested in the commercialization side but this fast-paced talking to the customers is not my forte.’

But we stuck with it. We found people to talk to through Google searches. We went to the USDA list and found whatever meat processing plants they inspect and food processing plants they inspect, and went from there. 

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

Once he found customers, he had to speak with them. Here’s what he did, and why he had a change of heart about I-Corps that marked a career pivot for him:

I started not even cold calling; it was cold showing up. There were a couple streets, the meat district of Chicago, and I just started knocking on doors.

I was afraid these guys weren’t going to understand what I was doing but it turned out that once you get in the door and start talking to them about how they do testing for pathogens right now, that’s when you saw them open up.

That’s when I realized that this is something I can do because even though it is uncomfortable for me, they are very interested in talking, they just want a sounding board and that’s what I wanted to be. 


If you can’t hear the clip, click here

I realized the importance of talking to customers, listening and learning from them. The more you talk to them you start seeing how painful it was for them.  

They said, ‘We currently have detection techniques that take two days and while we wait for the results we have to store the food.’  What that meant was that until the test results came back the food can’t ship and that’s lost revenue for them. In talking about how expensive the costs of that two-day delay are for them we could start seeing that maybe our research could help these people.  

For me, it was seeing not just what goes on the bench in our lab but there is some sort of real-world application for it.

And to hear it from these people who are not scientists, that was kind of cool.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

Curt Hazleton is a leader in structural earthquake engineering, focusing on building code development, building collapse safety assessments, and earthquake damage loss estimation. He’s a co-founder and CEO of HB Risk, and a Professor and Department Chair in Civil Engineering at California State University, Chico. He received his Ph.D. in Structural Engineering from Stanford University in 2006. Among his awards, Curt received the 2013 Shah Family Innovation Prize from the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute, honoring an individual under the age of 35 for creativity, innovation and an entrepreneurial spirit in earthquake risk mitigation and management.

Like Sunny, Curt participated in the NSF I-Corps and quickly learned how illuminating customer interviews could be:

We were extremely surprised that by simply getting out of the building and using the customer discovery process you can go and interview people and they’ll tell you exactly what they need and what you can build for them and how much they’ll pay for it.  

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

In doing customer discovery, Curt and his co-founder started out with one customer in mind, but quickly found a more lucrative option:

We initially started with the structural engineers as our target market because that’s what we knew. That’s where we saw the initial need.

As we went through that it’s been verified that there is a market there and they’re interested, but we’ve also seen there’s another market that we call the risk-pricing market. Those are the people insuring the buildings and underwriting the mortgages for the buildings.

They care more. Engineers care about the design of the building, absolutely, but they’re not the ones with the money on the line.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

Along the way, they met both skeptics and visionaries:

The difference between early adopters and mainstream people was very interesting, especially in the emerging market on the structural engineering side.

The early adopters would see the vision that we see. I was told by one of them it doesn’t even make sense that not everybody is adopting this right away today, because in five years everyone’s going to be doing it.

Then I’d go to people that I would characterize mainstream and they’d say, “Well, it doesn’t meet a need that we have right now.”

We had to take both pieces of feedback and realize it was an emerging market and not everyone would see the vision.

Since then, a few of those skeptic mainstream people have actually come back to us for licenses once they’ve had clients that want this done for them.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

Ultimately, Sunny and his co-founders killed their startup idea

We decided as a team that there was no match between what we’d learned in customer interviews about where the need was and what we were providing.

We decided we shouldn’t pursue this market.

It was tough at first but when you think about it, we saved time and money. That was the whole point of the exercise.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

Today he teaches his students at Notre Dame how to use Lean Startup principles. He tells them:

Scientific research it is hypothesis-driven. You’re just guessing and then trying to prove it true or false. This whole commercialization side of things is not that much different. It’s a scientific method.

What you think about your technology is great, but at the end of the day you’re not the one who will be buying this, it will be the customers who will be buying this. The only way to know what they want is to get out of the building and talk to them.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

Curt said the pace of startup life surprised him

I made more progress in the startup in the first four months than I did in the first four years as an academic chair.  

That doesn’t mean we didn’t make progress in the department. We made a lot. It’s just a different nature. The startup pace has been a lot of fun.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

Here’s his advice for other academics with tech ideas they’d like to commercialize:

Most researchers come at it with, “I have a product that I really love and I think someone should buy it from me,” and don’t come at it from, “There’s a need in the industry somewhere and I can create something to fill that need.”  

Getting as quickly away from that first approach as possible would be my first recommendation, because in the Innovation Corps process we clearly saw that.  

Most people said, “I have this great technology. I’ve never been out of my lab. I think someone will want to buy it from me,” but the commercial side of it wasn’t there.

You need to get at, “Does anyone care? Does anyone want to buy it?” as quickly as possible.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

Listen to my full interviews with Sunny and Curt by downloading them from SoundCloud here and here. (And download any of the past shows here.)

Coming up next on the blog: Tina Fitch, co-founder and CEO of Hobnob; and Alice Brooks, co-founder and CEO Roominate

Tune in Thursday at 1 pm PT, 4 pm ET on Sirius XM Channel 111 to hear these upcoming guests on Entrepreneurs are Everywhere:

 Want to be a guest on the show? Entrepreneurship stretches from Main Street to Silicon Valley, from startups to big companies. Send an email to terri@kandsranch.com describing your entrepreneurial journey.

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