When I began grad school, I told myself I would pursue any and all opportunities to learn new skills that I thought might help create more career options. In January 2017, that instructive led me into the world of entrepreneurial training through the NSF I-Corps program, a competitive award that provides training in how to turn scientific discoveries into viable business opportunities.
I was the Entrepreneurial Lead of the team along with Geoff Hill as PI and Lew Scharpf as the Industry Mentor. We were focused on the farm-raised fish industry, where we thought we could provide a novel natural source of the red pigments used to make fish like salmon and trout their characteristic color. Synthetic sources of this pigment are cheap and readily available, but recent market pressures for natural sources of red pigment are increasing each year.
To summarize the program with one word it would be: INTENSE. Unlike traditional business development strategies where you build a product, raise money, start a company, then find customers, the I-Corps program adopts the lean business model canvas system where the first step is to figure out if you've developed a product that people actually want to buy! The main task of this program was to conduct 'Customer Discovery Interviews' to address just that question by learning about the industry and the needs of your potential customers. In 7 weeks I traveled across the United States to conduct these interviews in-person.
In the end we learned that there was a need for our product, but that producing enough of the product to meet industry demands was a major hurdle to enter the market.