When I-Corps post-docs come calling, make it your policy to answer

Let’s say you receive an email or a message on LinkedIn that looks something like this:

“Hello, I am a Ph.D. candidate at (name of a university). I am doing some research on the challenges with (topic that is in your area of expertise). It appears that you know quite a bit about this subject matter. I am hoping we can set up a 15-minute Zoom call to cover a few questions that I have. I promise I am not selling anything, just doing some research.”

Hopefully, you agree to take the call because it can lead to a significant opportunity for your business. Here’s why.

The requester is likely participating in a regional or national Innovation I-Corps program created by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The program aims to teach research teams how to find a target market that would value their innovation or technology by conducting customer discovery interviews to identify big problems where the current solutions aren’t working. The I-Corps program sprung from the discovery that very few of the products and services created with the help NSF’s $200 million in annual R&D funding awards actually reached the market to benefit the public because post-docs simply had no idea how to explore the commercial potential of their research results.

These interviews help these entrepreneurs avoid the biggest point of failure for startups: They build something that no one really needs or wants. These calls not only help the startups avoid that fate, they also create an opportunity for them to learn about different or related problems that their technology could solve.

And this is how taking these calls helps you. Business leaders who have participated in these interviews say:

After helping to confirm that the interviewer is solving the right problem, often the interviewer will return with a request to take a look at a potential solution to see if they are solving it the right way. This often leads to further discussions within the company about fine-tuning a solution, which can then lead to a pilot. The company thus gets a personalized product/service that solves a big problem at no or very low cost, giving them a competitive advantage.

They get to shape possible solutions before they get too far along in the design phase, avoiding costly and time-consuming corrections. This is especially important for system integration — making it easier to deploy.

On occasion, it can lead to a strategic partnership that results in an acquisition that can significantly improve the bottom line through increased revenue or decreased costs.

Because of the benefits of tapping into new technology and innovations, many institutions have created front doors to make it easy for those seeking interviews to connect with the right person. In the Pittsburgh region, those include Duquesne Light, Koppers, Clorox, Giant Eagle, Sheetz and others. Every organization should consider doing the same. ●

Kit Needham is Assistant Dean for Entrepreneurship Initiatives; Director, Project Olympus, Carnegie Mellon University

Kit Needham

Assistant Dean for Entrepreneurship Initiatives; Director, Project Olympus,
Connect On Social Media