Lean LaunchPad – For Deep Science and Technology

We just finished the 11th annual Lean LaunchPad class at Stanford — our first version focused on deep science and technology.

I’ve always thought of the class as a minimal viable product – testing new ideas and changing the class as we learn. This year was no exception as we made some major changes, all of which we are going to keep going forward.

  1. A focus on scientists and engineers. We created an additional Spring section of the class with a focus on commercializing inventions from Stanford’s scientists and engineers. The existing winter quarter of the class remains the same as we taught for the last 10 years – taking all students’ projects – e-commerce, social media, web, and mobile apps. This newly created Spring section focuses on scientists and engineers who want to learn how to commercialize deep science and technology – life sciences (medical devices, diagnostics, digital health, therapeutics,) semiconductors, health care, sensors, materials, artificial intelligence/deep learning, et al.
    This allowed us to emphasize how to differentiate a technical spec from a value proposition and expand on the parts of the business model that are unique for science and engineering startups. For example, life sciences versus commercial applications have radically different reimbursement, regulatory, clinical trials, scientific advisory boards, demand creation, etc. In addition, we found we needed to add new material on Intellectual Property, how to license inventions from the university, and discussions about team dynamics.  Going forward we’ll continue to offer the class in two sections with the second class focused on science and technology.
  2. Remote Discovery – As the pandemic forced teaching remotely, we’ve learned that customer discovery is actually more efficient using video conferencing. It increased the number of interviews the students were able to do each week. When Covid restrictions are over, we plan to add remote customer discovery to the students’ toolkit. It remains to be seen whether customers will remain as available on Zoom as they were during the pandemic. (See here for an extended discussion of remote customer discovery.) Remote discovery also allowed a bigger pool of potential interviews not bounded by geography. The quality of interviewees seemed to improve by this larger pool.
  3. Class size/configuration – For the past decade our class size was 8 teams of 4. This year we accepted 12 teams of 4. Previously all teams needed to sit through all 8 weekly presentations. That was tough in person and not sustainable via Zoom. This year, by moving into two breakout sections, we cut the number of presentations that each team sat through by half.  The new format allowed students and teaching staff to devote greater attention to each presentation.
  4. Adopt a team – in past years all instructors had office hours with all the teams. This year each instructor adopted three teams and saw them weekly for a half hour. Students really appreciated building a closer working relationship with one faculty member.
  5. Alumni as guest speakers – Most weeks we invited a past student to guest speak about their journey through the class, highlighting “what I wish I knew” and “what to pay attention to.”

Below are the Lessons Learned presentations from the Lean LaunchPad for deep science and technology, as well as additional learnings from the class.

During the quarter the teams spoke to 1,237 potential customers, beneficiaries, regulators – all via Zoom. Most students spent 15-20 hours a week on the class, about double that of a normal class.

Team Gloflow

Started on Week 1 as a pathology slide digitization service.
Ended in Week 10 as response prediction for cancer treatments.

If you can’t see the Gloflow video, click here

If you can’t see the Gloflow slides, click here

Team Loomia

Started on Week 1 as flexible e-textile circuit looking for a problem.
Ended in Week 10 as easy-to-integrate components for automotive suppliers.

If you can’t see the Loomia video, click here

If you can’t see the Loomia slides, click here

Team Skywalk

Started on Week 1 as wearable gesture control device for real and virtual worlds.
Ended in Week 10 as a future-proof gesture control solution for AR headsets and the Department of Defense.

If you can’t see the Skywalk video, click here

If you can’t see the Skywalk slides, click here

Team EdgeAI

Started on Week 1 as a custom silicon chip with embedded memories and a Machine Learning accelerator targeting low-power, high-throughput, and low-latency applications.
Ended in Week 10 as a chip enabling AI vision applications on next generation battery powered surveillance cameras.

If you can’t see the EdgeAI video click here

If you can’t see the EdgeAI slides, click here

Team MushroomX

Started on Week 1 as Drone pollination of crops.
Ended in Week 10 as autonomous button mushroom harvesting.

If you can’t see the MushroomX video, see here

If you can’t see the MushroomX slides, click here

Team RVEX

Started on Week 1 as a Biomimetic Sleeve as a Left Ventricular Assist Device.
Ended in Week 10 as a Platform technology as a right heart failure device.

If you can’t see the RVEX video, click here

If you can’t see the RVEX slides, click here

Team Pause

Started on Week 1 as a Menopause digital health platform that connects women to providers and other women.
Ended in Week 10 as a D2C Menopause symptom tracking app and on-demand telehealth platform that offers women a personalized and integrative approach to menopause care.

If you can’t see the Pause video, click here

If you can’t see the Pause slides, click here

Team Celsius

Started on Week 1 as an IOT hardware sensor for environmental quality and human presence.
Ended in Week 10 as hybrid work collaboration + employee engagement.

If you can’t see the Celsius video, click here

If you can’t see the Celsius slides, click here

Team TakeCare

Started on Week 1 as a platform for finding and managing at-home senior care.
Ended in Week 10 as a B2C platform for scheduling on-demand at-home senior care.

If you can’t see the TakeCare video, click here

If you can’t see the Take Care slides, click here

Team CareMatch

Started on Week 1 as AI to Match Patients to Post-Acute Care.
Ended in Week 10 as Skilled Nursing Facility-at-Home for Wound Care.

If you can’t see the CareMatch video, click here

If you can’t see the CareMatch slides, click here

Team NeuroDB

Started on Week 1 as Unstructured data Tableau-like tool.
Ended in Week 10 as Cloud-based Pandas dataframe.

If you can’t see the NeuroDB video click here

If you can’t see the NeuroDB slides, click here

Team Drova

Started on Week 1 as a provider for autonomous drone delivery for restaurants and grocery stores.
Ended in Week 10 as Fleet management software for autonomous drone delivery.

If you can’t see the Drova video click here

If you can’t see the Drova slides, click here

Student Comments
I normally don’t include student comments in these summaries, but this year’s summarized why – after a decade – we still teach the class. The students find the class hard and exhausting, and say their instructors are tough and demanding. Yet in the end, the class and the work they invest in is highly rewarding to them.

  • “Awesome course- one of the best I’ve taken so far. You get out what you put into it, but find a team you like working with, get ready to hustle and work hard, and trust the process. A must-take for entrepreneurs!”
  • “Absolutely crucial to starting a company for a first-time founder. Couldn’t imagine a better teaching team or learning environment.”
  • “Very worth taking, whether you want to do a start-up your own or not.”
  • “Recommend to everyone considering entrepreneurship or want to learn about it.”
  • “Great class if you are interested in learning about the Customer Discovery Model, but takes a lot of time and work.”
  • “Intense course where you learn through experience on how to build a startup. I came with a product and I learned to find a solution and how to build from there.”
  • “Incredible experience – really glad I took the class and happy with the outcome.”
  • “Steve Blank tells you your slides are ugly”
  • “Take this course if you get a chance, especially if you are a PhD student. Super useful and a different kind of learning than most case-based classes. Extremely experiential.”
  • “A great class to learn about customer discovery and entrepreneurship methodologies! The teaching team is incredibly experienced and very honest in their feedback. It is quite time intensive and heavily based on your team. Make sure to clarify expectations with your team beforehand and communicate.”
  • “Definitely recommend this course, it’s a great experience and will give you tools to launch your idea.”
  • “A really excellent course to take to learn about entrepreneurship! An invaluable opportunity you might not find anywhere else. The instructors are extremely knowledgeable veteran entrepreneurs who give all the support and encouragement needed.”

Diversity
In past years, the students in the class were mostly men, reflecting the makeup of the applicants. While Ann Miura-Ko was part of the original teaching team, having all male instructors for the last five years didn’t help. Mar Hershenson joined the teaching team in 2018 and made an all-out effort to recruit women to apply. In this new Spring section of the class Heidi Roizen and Jennifer Carolan joined us as instructors. Mar, Heidi and Jennifer are all successful VC’s. They sponsored lunch sessions, mixers and meetings with women entrepreneurs and alumni for female students interested in the class and for male students looking to work with a more diverse team. I am happy to report that as a result of many people’s hard work the gender balance in the class substantially changed. Our Spring cohort focused on deep science and tech had 51 students — 25 were women.

The lessons for me were: 1) the class had been unintentionally signaling a “boys-only” environment, 2) these unconscious biases were easily dismissed by assuming that the class makeup simply reflected the applicant pipeline, and 3) when in fact it required active outreach by a woman to change that perception and bring more women into the pipeline and teams.

Teaching Assistants (TAs)
Our Teaching Assistants keep all the moving parts of the class running. This year their job was even more challenging running the class virtually and they made it run like clockwork.

Each year’s TAs have continued to make the class better (although I must admit it was interesting to watch the TAs remove any student uncertainty about what they need to do week-to-week by moving to a more prescriptive syllabus. Originally, I had designed a level of uncertainty into the class to mimic what a real-world startup feel like.) However, the art of teaching this class is remembering that it wasn’t designed by a focus group.

A Great Class Endures Beyond Its Author
I’ve always believed that great classes continue to thrive after the original teachers have moved on. While I created the Lean LaunchPad methodology and pedagogy (how to teach the class), over the past decade the Stanford class has had ten additional instructors, thirty-three wonderful TA’s and ninety volunteer mentors.

In addition to myself the teaching team has been:

2011 Instructors: Ann Miura-ko, Jon Feiber
Lead TA: Thomas Haymore, TA’s: Felix Huber, Christina Cacioppo

2012 Instructors: Ann Miura-ko, Jon Feiber
Lead TA: Thomas Haymore, TA:, Stephanie Glass

2013 Instructors: Ann Miura-ko, Jon Feiber
Lead TA: Rick Barber, TA: Stephanie Glass

2014 Instructors: Jeff Epstein, Jim Hornthal
Lead TA: Soumya Mohan, TA: Stephanie Zhan, Asst: Gabriel Garza, Jennifer Tsau

2015 Instructors: Jeff Epstein, Steve Weinstein
TA’s: Stephanie Zhan, Gabriel Garza TAs: Jennifer Tsau, Akaash Nanda, Asst: Nick Hershey

2016 Instructors: Jeff Epstein, Steve Weinstein
Lead TA: Jose Ignacio del Villar TA’s: Akaash Nanda, Nick Hershey, Zabreen Khan, Asst: Eric Peter

2017 Instructors: Jeff Epstein, Steve Weinstein
Lead TA: Eric Peter TA’s: Nick Hershey, Lorel Sim Karan Singhal Asst: Jenny Xia

2018 Instructors: Jeff Epstein, Steve Weinstein, Mar Hershenson, George John
Lead TA: Jenny Xia TA’s: Anand Upender, Marco Lorenzon, Lorel Sim Asst: Parker Ence, Trent Hazy, Sigalit Perelson

2019 Instructors: Jeff Epstein, Steve Weinstein, Mar Hershenson, George John, Tom Bedecarre
Lead TA: Parker Ence, Trent Hazy TA’s: Marco Lorenzon, Sigalit Perelson, Lorel Sim Asst:, Ashley Wu

2020 Instructors: Jeff Epstein, Steve Weinstein, Mar Hershenson, George John, Tom Bedecarre
Lead TA: Marco Lorenzon, Ashley Wu TA’s: Sigalit Perelson, Gopal Raman

2021 – Winter Instructors: Jeff Epstein, Mar Hershenson, George John, Tom Bedecarre
Lead TA: Erica Meehan, Anand Lalwani, TA’s: Gopal Raman, Andrew Hojel

2021 – Spring Instructors: Steve Weinstein, Heidi Roizen, Jennifer Carolan, Tom Bedecarre
Lead TAs: Sandra Ha, Lorenz Pallhuber TA: Manan Rai

Our Decade of Mentors
The mentors (industry experts) who volunteer their time have been supported and coordinated by Tom Bedecarre and Todd Basche. Each mentor’s contribution gets graded by the student team they coached.

Bryan Stolle, Charles Hudson, Dan Martell, David Feinlab, David Stewart, Doug Camplejohn, Eric Carr, George Zachary, Gina Bianchini, Heiko Hubertz, Hiten Shah, Jason Davies, Jim Greer, Jim Smith, Jonathan Ebinger, Josh Schwarzapel, Joshua Reeves, Justin Schaffer, Karen Richardson, Marianne Wu, Masheesh Jain, Ravi Belani, Rowan Chapman, Shawn Carolan, Steve Turner, Sven Strohbad, Thomas Hessler, Will Harvey, Ashton Udall, Ethan Bloch, Jonathan Abrams, Nick O’Connor, Pete Vlastellica, Steve Weinstein, Adi Bittan, Alan Chiu, George Zachary, Jeff Epstein, Kat Barr, Konstantin Guericke, Michael Borrus, Scott Harley, Jorge Heraud, Bob Garrow, Eyal Shavit, Ethan Kurzweil, Jim Anderson, George John, Dan Manian, Lee Redden, Steve King, Sunil Nagaraj, Evan Rapoport, Haydi Danielson, Nicholas O’Connor, Jake Seid, Tom Bedecarre, Lucy Lu, Adam Smith, Justin Wickett, Allan May, Craig Seidel, Rafi Holtzman, Roger Ross, Danielle Fong, Mar Hershenson, Heather Richman, Jim Cai, Siqi Mou, Vera Kenehan, Phil Dillard, Susan Golden, Todd Basche, Robert Locke, Maria Amundson, Freddy Dopfel, Don Peppers, Rekha Pai, Radhika Malpani, Michael Heinrich, MariaLena Popo, Jordan Segall, Mike Dorsey, Katie Connor, Anmol Madan, Kira Makagon, Andrew Westergren, Wendy Tsu, Teresa Briggs, Pradeep Jotwani.

And thanks to the continued support of Tom Byers, Tina Seelig, Kathy Eisenhardt, Ritta Katilla, Bob Sutton and Chuck Eesly at Stanford Technology Ventures Program (the entrepreneurship center in the Stanford Engineering School).

Hacking for Defense @ Stanford 2021 Lessons Learned Presentations

We just finished our 6th annual Hacking for Defense class at Stanford.

What a year. With the pandemic winding down it finally feels like the beginning of the end.

This was my sixth time teaching a virtual class during the lockdown – and for our students likely their 15th or more. Hacking for Defense has teams of students working to understand and solve national security problems. Although the class was run completely online, and even though they were suffering from Zoom fatigue, the 10 teams of 42 students collectively interviewed 1,142 beneficiaries, stakeholders, requirements writers, program managers, industry partners, etc. – while simultaneously building a series of minimal viable products.

At the end of the quarter, each of the teams gave a final “Lessons Learned” presentation. Unlike traditional demo days or Shark Tanks which are, “Here’s how smart I am, and isn’t this a great product, please give me money,” a Lessons Learned presentation tells the story of a team’s 10-week journey and hard-won learning and discovery. For all of them it’s a roller coaster narrative describing what happens when you discover that everything you thought you knew on day one was wrong and how they eventually got it right.

Here’s how they did it and what they delivered.


How Do You Get Out of the Building When You Can’t Get Out of the Building?
This class is built on conducting in-person of interviews with customers/ beneficiaries and stakeholders, but due to the pandemic, teams now had to do all their customer discovery via a computer screen. This would seem to be a fatal stake through the heart of the class. How would customer interviews work via video?  After teaching remotely for the last year, we’ve learned that customer discovery is actually more efficient using video conferencing. It increased the number of interviews the students were able to do each week.

Many of the people the students needed to talk to were sheltering at home, which meant they weren’t surrounded by gatekeepers. While the students missed gaining the context of standing on a navy ship or visiting a drone control station or watching someone try their app or hardware, the teaching team’s assessment was that remote interviews were more than an adequate substitute. When Covid restrictions are over, we plan to add remote customer discovery to the students’ toolkit. (See here for an extended discussion of remote customer discovery.)

We Changed The Class Format
While teaching remotely we made two major changes to the class. Previously, each of the teams presented a weekly ten-minute summary consisting of “here’s what we thought, here’s what we did, here’s what we found, here’s what we’re going to do next week.”  While we kept that cadence, it was too exhausting for all the other teams to stare at their screen watching every other team present. So we split the weekly student presentations into thirds – three teams presented to the entire class then three teams each went into two Zoom breakout rooms. During the quarter we rotated the teams and instructors through the main room and breakout sessions.

The second change was the addition of alumni guest speakers – students who had taken the class in the past. They offered insights about what they got right and wrong and what they wished they had known.

Lessons Learned Presentation Format
For the final Lessons Learned presentation many of the eight teams presented a 2-minute video to provide context about their problem. This was followed by an 8-minute slide presentation describing their customer discovery journey over the 10 weeks. While all the teams used the Mission Model Canvas, (videos here), Customer Development and Agile Engineering to build Minimal Viable Products, each of their journeys was unique.

By the end the class all the teams realized that the problem as given by the sponsor had morphed into something bigger, deeper and much more interesting.

All the presentations are worth a watch.

Team Fleetwise – Vehicle Fleet Management

If you can’t see the Fleetwise 2-minute video, click here

If you can’t see the Fleetwise slides, click here

Mission-Driven Entrepreneurship
This class is part of a bigger idea – Mission-Driven Entrepreneurship. Instead of students or faculty coming in with their own ideas, we ask them to work on societal problems, whether they’re problems for the State Department or the Department of Defense or non-profits/NGOs  or the Oceans and Climate or for anything the students are passionate about. The trick is we use the same Lean LaunchPad / I-Corps curriculum — and the same class structure – experiential, hands-on– driven this time by a mission-model not a business model. (The National Science Foundation, National Security Agency and the Common Mission Project have helped promote the expansion of the methodology worldwide.)

Mission-driven entrepreneurship is the answer to students who say, “I want to give back. I want to make my community, country or world a better place, while being challenged to solve some of the toughest problems.”

Project Agrippa – Logistics and Sustainment in IndoPacific

If you can’t see the Project Agrippa 2-minute video, click here

If you can’t see the Project Agrippa slides, click here

It Started With An Idea
Hacking for Defense has its origins in the Lean LaunchPad class I first taught at Stanford in 2011. I observed that teaching case studies and/or how to write a business plan as a capstone entrepreneurship class didn’t match the hands-on chaos of a startup. Furthermore, there was no entrepreneurship class that combined experiential learning with the Lean methodology. Our goal was to teach both theory and practice.

The same year we started the class, it was adopted by the National Science Foundation to train Principal Investigators who wanted to get a federal grant for commercializing their science (an SBIR grant.) The NSF observed, “The class is the scientific method for entrepreneurship. Scientists understand hypothesis testing” and relabeled the class as the NSF I-Corps (Innovation Corps). The class is now taught in 9 regional locations supporting 98 universities and has trained over 1500 science teams. It was adopted by the National Institutes of Health as I-Corps at NIH in 2014 and at the National Security Agency in 2015.

Team Silknet – Detecting Ground Base Threats

If you can’t see the Silknet 2-minute video, click here

If you can’t see the Silknet slides, click here

Origins Of Hacking For Defense
In 2016, brainstorming with Pete Newell of BMNT and Joe Felter at Stanford, we observed that students in our research universities had little connection to the problems their government was trying to solve or the larger issues civil society was grappling with. As we thought about how we could get students engaged, we realized the same Lean LaunchPad/I-Corps class would provide a framework to do so. That year we launched both Hacking for Defense and Hacking for Diplomacy (with Professor Jeremy Weinstein and the State Department) at Stanford.

Team Flexible Fingerprints – Improve Cybersecurity

If you can’t see the Flexible Fingerprints 2-minute video, click here

If you can’t see the Flexible Fingerprints slides, click here

Goals for the Hacking for Defense Class
Our primary goal was to teach students Lean Innovation while they engaged in national public service. Today if college students want to give back to their country, they think of Teach for America, the Peace Corps, or AmeriCorps or perhaps the US Digital Service or the GSA’s 18F. Few consider opportunities to make the world safer with the Department of Defense, Intelligence community or other government agencies.

In the class we saw that students could learn about the nation’s threats and security challenges while working with innovators inside the DoD and Intelligence Community. At the same time the experience would introduce to the sponsors, who are innovators inside the Department of Defense (DOD) and Intelligence Community (IC), a methodology that could help them understand and better respond to rapidly evolving threats. We wanted to show that if we could get teams to rapidly discover the real problems in the field using Lean methods, and only then articulate the requirements to solve them, defense acquisition programs could operate at speed and urgency and deliver timely and needed solutions.

Finally, we wanted to familiarize students with the military as a profession and help the better understand its expertise, and its proper role in society. We hoped it would also show our sponsors in the Department of Defense and Intelligence community that civilian students can make a meaningful contribution to problem understanding and rapid prototyping of solutions to real-world problems.

Team Neurosmart –  Optimizing Performance of Special Operators

If you can’t see the Neurosmart 2-minute video, click here

If you can’t see the Neurosmart slides, click here

Mission-Driven in 50 Universities and Continuing to Expand in Scope and Reach
What started as a class is now a movement.

From its beginning with our Stanford class, Hacking for Defense is now offered in over 50 universities in the U.S., as well as in the UK and Australia. Steve Weinstein started Hacking for Impact (Non-Profits) and Hacking for Local (Oakland) at U.C. Berkeley, and Hacking for Oceans at both Scripps and UC Santa Cruz.  Hacking for Homeland Security launched last year at the Colorado School of Mines and Carnegie Mellon University. A version for NASA is coming up next.

And to help businesses recover from the pandemic, the teaching team taught a series of Hacking For Recovery classes last summer.

Our Hacking for Defense team continues to look for opportunities to adapt and apply the course methodology for broader impact and public good. Project Agrippa, for example, piloted a new “Hacking for Strategy” initiative inspired by their experience in Stanford’s “Technology, Innovation and Modern War” class that Raj Shah, Joe Felter and I taught last fall. This all-star team of 4 undergraduates and a JD/MBA developed new ways to provide logistical support to maritime forces in the Indo-Pacific region. Their recommendations drew on insights gleaned from over 242! interviews (a national H4D class record.) After in-person briefings to Marine Corps and Navy commanders and staff across major commands from California to Hawaii, they received interest in establishing a future collaboration, validating our hypothesis that Hacking for Strategy would be a welcome addition to our course offerings. Its premise is that keeping America safe not only requires us maintaining a technological edge but also using these cutting edge technologies to develop new operational concepts and strategies. Stay tuned.

Team AngelComms – Rescuing Downed Pilots

If you can’t see the AngelComms 2-minute video, click here

If you can’t see the AngelComms slides, click here

Team Salus – Patching Operational Systems to Keep them Secure

If you can’t see the Salus 2-minute video, click here

If you can’t see the Salus slides, click here

Team Mongoose – Tracking Hackers Disposable Infrastructure

If you can’t see the Mongoose 2-minute video, click here

If you can’t see the Mongoose slides, click here

Team Engage – Preparing Aviators to Make Critical High Stakes Decisions

If you can’t see the Engage slides, click here

What’s Next For These Teams?
When they graduate, the Stanford students on these teams have the pick of jobs in startups, companies, and consulting firms. Most are applying to H4X Labs, an accelerator focused on building dual-use companies that sell to both the government and commercial firms. Many will continue to work with their problem sponsor. Several will join the new Stanford Gordian Knot Center which is focused on the intersection of policy, operational concepts, and technology.

In our post class survey 86% of the students said that the class had impact on their immediate next steps in their career. Over 75% said it changed their opinion of working with the Department of Defense and other USG organizations.

It Takes A Village
While I authored this blog post, this class is a team project. The secret sauce of the success of Hacking for Defense at Stanford is the extraordinary group of dedicated volunteers supporting our students in so many critical ways.

The teaching team consisted of myself and:

  • Pete Newell, retired Army Colonel and ex Director of the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force, now CEO of BMNT.
  • Joe Felter, retired Army Colonel; and former deputy assistant secretary of defense for South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Oceania; and William J. Perry Fellow at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.
  • Steve Weinstein, 30-year veteran of Silicon Valley technology companies and Hollywood media companies. Steve was CEO of MovieLabs, the joint R&D lab of all the major motion picture studios. He runs H4X Labs.
  • Tom Bedecarré, the founder and CEO of AKQA, the leading digital advertising agency.
  • Jeff Decker, a Stanford researcher focusing on dual-use research. Jeff served in the U.S. Army as a special operations light infantry squad leader in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Our teaching assistants this year were Nick Mirda, Sally Eagen, Joel Johnson, past graduates of Hacking for Defense, and Valeria RinconA special thanks to the National Security Innovation Network (NSIN) and Rich Carlin and the Office of Naval Research for supporting the program at Stanford and across the country, as well as Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. And our course advisor, Tom Byers, Professor of Engineering and Faculty Director, STVP.

Thanks to Mike Brown, Director of the Defense Innovation Unit for giving an extraordinary closing keynote.

We were lucky to get a team of mentors (VCs and entrepreneurs) as well as an extraordinary force of military liaisons from the Hoover Institution’s National Security Affairs Fellows program, Stanford senior military fellowship program and other accomplished military affiliated volunteers. This diverse group of experienced experts selflessly volunteer their time to help coach the teams. Thanks to Todd Basche, Rafi Holtzman, Kevin Ray, Craig Seidel, Katie Tobin, Jennifer Quarrie, Jason Chen, Matt Fante, Richard Tippitt, Rich Lawson, Commander Jack Sounders, Mike Hoeschele, Donnie Hasseltine, Steve Skipper, LTC Jim Wiese, Col. Denny Davis, Commander Jeff Vanak, Marco Romani, Rachel Costello, LtCol Kenny Del Mazo, Don Peppers, Mark Wilson and LTC Ed Cuevas

And of course a big shout-out to our problem sponsors across the DoD and IC: MSgt Ashley McCarthy, Jason Stack, Col Sean Heidgerken, LTC Richard Barnes, George Huber, Neal Ziring, Shane Williams, Anthony Ries, Russell Hoffing, Javier Garcia, Matt Correa, Shawn Walsh, and Claudia Quigley.

You Don’t Need Permission

I was pleasantly surprised to hear from Suresh, an ex-student I’ve known for a long time. A U.S. citizen he was now the head of sales and marketing for a company in London selling medical devices to hospitals in the UK National Health Service.  His boss had identified the U.S. as their next market and wanted him to set up a U.S. salesforce. Suresh understood that the U.S. health system was very different from the system in the UK, not just the regulatory regime through the FDA, but the reimbursement process and the entire sales process.

Over a Zoom call Suresh explained, “I’m trying to push the importance of running customer discovery and testing these hypotheses before we build our U.S. product, but I’m running into a pushback from my CEO. He says, “We’re disruptors! Discovery is going to slow us down.  We need to move quickly!”

Suresh was concerned. “If we don’t test our assumptions about the market and any changes needed to our products, we’ll build something I can’t sell. Worse, given how expensive clinical trials are in medtech, I’m concerned if we build a product that isn’t commercially viable, we’ll be out of business before we even start.”

I could hear his frustration and concern when he asked, “How can I convince my boss to use customer discovery to test our hypotheses?”

That’s when I realized that Suresh was overlooking a few things.

  1. He was trying to sell the “story” of Customer Discovery as part of the Lean Methodology to his CEO by explaining how discovery worked with the business model canvas, agile engineering, pivots and MVPs.
  2. But talking about the method to others is not the same as “doing” Customer Discovery.
  3. Customer Discovery is about gathering validated evidence, not proselytizing a method.
  4. The goal of discovery is to gather evidence to test hypotheses, deeply understand the customer problem and validate a solution.
  5. As head of sales and marketing, Suresh didn’t need his CEO to buy into the process or give his permission to start the discovery process. He was in charge.
  6. Given the ubiquity of Zoom, he could use it to rapidly get out of the building to the U.S. to test some hypotheses and gather some initial insights.

I pointed out that once he had potential customer, regulator, and reimbursement data from his Discovery interviews, he could bring that data into conversations with his CEO.

Having real data turns conversations from faith-based to evidence-based.

Lessons Learned

  • Talking about the Lean method to others is not the same as doing it
  • If you’re in charge or part of a customer-facing organization, you don’t need to wait for permission to talk to customers to test hypotheses
  • Having real data turns conversations from faith-based to evidence-based

Your Product is Not Their Problem

There are no facts inside your building, so get the heck outside

I just had a call with Lorenz, a former business school student who started a job at a biotech startup making bacteria to take CO2 out of the air. His job was to find new commercial markets for this bacteria at scale.  And he wanted to chat about how to best enter a new market.

His market research found that the concrete industry contributes between 5 and 10% of the world’s carbon emissions. So it seemed logical to him that the concrete industry was going to be one the first places to approach since it was obvious that they need to reduce carbon emissions. He believed that if used as an additive to concrete, his bacteria could strengthen it while reducing CO2.

The conversation got interesting when I asked, “How are you going to describe the product to potential customers in the concrete industry?” Lorenz began a long description of the details of the bacteria, his founders’ research papers on bacteria, the scientific advisory board bacteria experts they had assembled, how the bacteria was made at scale in fluidized bed reactors, etc… This went on for at least ten more minutes. When he was done I asked him, “So why should anybody in the concrete industry care? Do you really think they’re looking for bacteria made in fluidized bed reactors? Do you think there are a significant number whose number one issue is to buy bacteria? Do you know what if any of the features you mentioned actually matter to a potential customer?” There was silence for a moment. And then he said, “I don’t know.”

I wasn’t completely surprised because as a young marketeer, I made this mistake all the time – thinking that my product was a solution to someone’s problem  – without ever understanding what problems the customers really had. And that I needed to have all the answers when in fact I didn’t even understand the questions.

I suggested that perhaps he should get out of the building and actually talk to some large-scale concrete suppliers and rather than starting with what he wanted to sell them, try to understand what their needs were. For example, how were current and upcoming green building regulations on CO2 emissions affecting the concrete industry? How are they solving that problem today? (If they weren’t solving it, it may not be a problem they’ll pay to solve.) What was the current cost of low carbon concrete? How much would they have to charge to be competitive? Were there specific use-cases that made sense for initial adoption/pilots? What additional benefits could bacteria as an concrete additive make (ie. greater strength, crack healing)?

We talked for a few minutes more and by then I could see the lightbulb going on over his head when he said, “I think I got my work cut out for me.”

Lessons learned

  • Your product is not someone’s problem
  • Start with a deep understanding of a customer problem or need before you start pitching your solution
  • Ask customers how they solve the problem today
  • Understand future regulations that might change your customer’s priorities or challenges
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