Waltzing Through Customer Discovery

I’m not sure I’ve met a braver, entrepreneurial student researcher than Manmeet Singh. Ms. Singh is in the fourth year of her studies at CSU Sacramento.  She’s majoring in biology with an emphasis in Cell and Molecular Biology; she’s minoring in Chemistry and Dance.  She’s also serving as a member of the CSU I-Corps teaching team for our current student teams challenge.

Manmeet was on the team that won the 2014 CSUPERB Idea-to-Product (I2P) Challenge last year (the precursor to the CSU I-Corps program).  But she didn’t stop there; she agreed to be the Entrepreneurial Lead (EL) on a CSU Sacramento NSF I-Corps™ Team proposal, led by Dr. Warren Smith (PI).  John Chapman (President of Stem Cell Partners, LLC), rounded off the three-person team as industry mentor (IM).  The proposal was successful and the team travelled to University of Michigan’s I-Corps™ Node this summer as part of NSF’s “national” Teams program.  They ended up winning kudos from the University of Michigan teaching team for the learning they did this summer.

Manmeet Singh (with award in hand), John Chapman and Warren Smith receive an award "to the team that best embodied the spirit of I-Corps" from the University of Michigan I-Corps Node Teaching Team (Summer 2014)

Manmeet Singh (with award in hand), John Chapman and Warren Smith receive an award “to the team that best embodied the spirit of I-Corps” from the University of Michigan I-Corps Node Teaching Team (Summer 2014)

Last Friday we held the last webinar for the current group of CSU I-Corps student teams. Manmeet told her story and gave the student teams advice for “getting out of the building” and learning about product-market fit.

Last week CSUPERB put out the call for faculty-led CSU I-Corps teams, configured just like the “national” I-Corps Teams Program (PI + EL + IM).  The NSF hopes that successful CSU I-Corps teams will go on and apply for national I-Corps Team grants, as well as SBIR/STTR, VentureWell or Lemelson-MIT prizes.

I’m getting lots of emails and calls from interested and curious faculty members asking how this program works.  I figured the best way to answer many of their questions would be to interview Dr. Smith and Ms. Singh here as guest bloggers! I interviewed them separately, so you’ll get their different perspectives on the experience.*  Every time they refer to I2P (the program we ran 2012-2014), think of CSU I-Corps (the program going forward!).  I’ll turn it over to them to give you a candid look at I-Corps™!


How did you meet your team members?

Warren Smith (WDS): ” In 2010, I was Co-Principal Investigator for Sacramento State with UC Davis and Fisk University on an NSF Partnerships for Innovation (PFI) grant. That grant offered a one-week intensive Entrepreneurship Academy put on by the UC Davis Center for Entrepreneurship. John Chapman and I met as participants in that Academy. We arranged for John to be appointed as Adjunct Professor at Sac State, and John began working with teams of Sac State engineering and biological sciences students on regenerative medicine projects. Biological Sciences undergraduate student Manmeet Singh began working on these projects with John. In 2013, I got to know Manmeet when she was a member of a Sac State CSUPERB I2P team. John and I mentored her team, and that team won first place at the 2014 I2P competition in Santa Clara. That team’s product was a regenerative medicine device that was related to the product that we chose for the NSF I-Corps Teams grant.”

Why did you want to join up and go after the NSF I-Corps Team grant?

Manmeet Singh (MS): “Dr. Smith came to our lab and was talking about the NSF I-Corps Teams Program and said that this would be a great opportunity to connect the biology department with the engineering department…Dr. Chapman looked at me for a while and thought the Autologous Thrombin Device (ATD) would be a great project to submit and he gave me the opportunity to take the lead on the project because I know all the transformations that the device has gone through…”

WDS: “In February 2014, NSF informed me that I was eligible to be Principal Investigator on an I-Corps Teams grant because of my previous involvement in NSF grants.** (After serving as Co-PI on an NSF PFI grant, I served as subaward Project Director on an NSF Accelerating Innovation Research (AIR) grant and am now serving as subaward Project Director on an NSF PFI:AIR grant.) From the grant description, I saw that John Chapman was a great fit to the Mentor position. He suggested Manmeet Singh as the Entrepreneurial Lead. John and I saw that the grant was a great opportunity for a student as capable as Manmeet. John saw the value of customer discovery. I wanted to learn more about what it takes to move a biomedical product to market.”

Can you describe your current (post-U. Michigan) product concept and its value proposition?

WDS:  “The product, the Autologous Thrombin Device, provides thrombin on demand from a patient’s own blood rapidly and at low cost to promote tissue healing. The autologous thrombin is safer than currently-used bovine thrombin.”

MS: “It is a much safer alternative to bovine thrombin, which is derived from cow’s blood, decreasing immunological risks and foreign body reactions.”

How did your product concept change from what it was before I2P? From what it was before you went through the U. Michigan program?

MS: “Before the I2P competition we had the idea and a rough draft of what the product would look like but it was still going through a ton of troubleshooting experiments…The device itself along with the ratios of the fluids that we used to produce thrombin continuously changed until 8 months before we learned about the NSF I-Corps Teams Program. Our product concept and everything still remains the same as it was before the U. Michigan program but there are definitely some great things we learned through our customer interviews…”

How did your business model canvas change from what it was before I2P? From what it was before you went through the U. Michigan program?

MS: “During the I2P, we had a vision of our product being perfect and everyone would love it. We never really thought about or knew how many other steps are required in order to make a product idea into a reality. Before the U. Michigan Program, we had just learned about a business model canvas and we simply filled in what we knew even though we really felt like we had no idea what we were doing. However, looking back at all the business canvases…day 1 to the final presentations, it definitely showed that we had come a long way… [We now understand better] all the barriers and obstacles that one must go through simply to learn about the pains and needs of your customer segments. It was a great learning experience for sure.”

WDS: “Before the 2013 I2P competition and the U. Michigan program, we depended on the literature and the FDA’s black-box warning label on bovine thrombin to conclude that the Autologous Thrombin Device, producing safer thrombin, would be of sufficiently widespread, recognized value to justify the formation of a manufacturing company. After the customer discovery process of the U. Michigan program, we learned that a smaller market valued autologous over bovine thrombin, so that a licensing model was more appropriate.”

Was there an advantage of going through I2P (CSU I-Corps) before applying/attending the national I-Corps program at U. Michigan?

MS: “For me, there was definitely a great advantage! I2P [gave me the] confidence to talk in front of a 200+ crowd. We were required to answer questions for 5-10 minutes after our presentation and the questions could have been about anything regarding our project. At least for the I2P competition you are aware that you will be asked questions at the end of the presentation; however, the National I-Corps Teams Program was an entirely different ball game! I was not only the youngest in the cohort but also the very first presenter at our first day in Michigan, and the judges were having a great time throwing rapid fireball questions at me, which they actually admitted to! Had I not had the experience of being asked questions that I was unprepared for, I probably would not have been able to survive on that stage. As soon as I started speak, two of the instructors from the teaching team shouted loudly ,”WHY?! SO WHAT?!! WHO CARES?!?!” That really frightened me because it was totally unexpected. I may not have answered all the questions appropriately but I made sure that I at least answered all of them to the best of my abilities. After my presentation, the Program Director of NSF, Rathindra DasGupta, stood up and applauded me for my confidence and being able to stand up on the stage and answer all the questions by the judges without any hesitation. To be honest, he really boosted up my spirit that day because after I saw the other groups present, I felt like I did a terrible job compared to everyone else.”

WDS: “Yes, going through I2P was extremely valuable for all of us. John and I benefitted by mentoring I2P teams for all three years of the competition, and Manmeet benefitted from going through the last I2P competition. Getting familiar with the I2P judging criteria and having opportunities to make presentations and receive feedback from experts were very valuable preparations for the U. Michigan program.”

As of this moment – have you started a new company around the business model canvas you developed at the U. Michigan I-Corps? If not – what is your short-term (1-2 year) commercialization plan – or – are you headed back to the lab to do more R&D? Are you personally continuing to work with the team?

MS: “We started a company; however, this ATD is the first device that we wish to market through our company. The ATD is the driving force of several other product ideas that we have in mind, such as StemPATCH, which is a kit that contains the tools necessary for physicians to create a biological tissue composite to reduce adhesions and induce the natural healing process. We have already signed a contract with a leading surgical company in Europe to bring this device into the European Market first, then [in] the United States. I will be continuing my work with the ATD in addition to new and upcoming product ideas that revolve around the ATD.”

WDS: “As part of the I-Corps Teams grant application process, our team was interviewed by I-Corps program officer Rathindra (Babu) DasGupta and U. Michigan instructors, and I was specifically asked if, as Principal Investigator, I intended to change career pathways from academic to business. My response was that I very much wanted to learn more about what it takes to advance a biotechnology product to market, but for the purpose of better helping my students, not to go into business myself. I thought that my response would jeopardize our chances of getting a grant, but the I-Corps program officer told me that that is the usual and expected response of the Principal Investigators on the I-Corps teams.”

Was there an “a-ha” moment in your customer discovery process? Asked other ways: what was your most important, surprising or memorable “pivot” or what was the assumption you had the most difficulty letting go?

MS: “The most shocking moment for the entire team was to realize through our interviews how much doctors are accepting of bovine thrombin use and basically narrowing it down to if the patient is able to get up off the operating table – then they’ll use the product. At that point we did not have much of a “need to have” type of product but then we learned that Europe actually banned the use of bovine products. That’s when we realized our real customers are in Europe! Forget pivoting into a new customer segment we had to pivot into a whole new, foreign market! When we learned this I did not think for a second that I would be able to go to Europe and speak to company owners and representatives themselves, one-on-one. It was the best experience of a lifetime!”

WDS: “Before the customer discovery process, we thought that the FDA’s black-box warning on bovine thrombin would cause every user of thrombin to prefer the Autologous Thrombin Device, which makes thrombin from the patient’s own blood. A big “a-ha” moment was that, in our customer interviews, we learned that many clinicians are willing to use bovine thrombin and therefore are not motivated to change to autologous thrombin. Next “a-ha” moments were that bovine thrombin is shunned in Europe, so that autologous thrombin is of much greater interest there, and that some [medical] specialties in the U.S. also are very interested in using autologous thrombin. So, there is a market, though it’s not as big as we initially thought.”

Do you “buy-in” to the Lean LaunchPad process for biotechnology commercialization? Why?

WDS: “Yes, to biotechnology scientists and engineers, it makes sense to do experiments in order to develop a business model, just as we do experiments to advance our biotechnology research. Also, there’s no substitute to actually interviewing customers and others in the ecosystem.”

For readers like you – do you have a piece of advice for other nascent academic biotech entrepreneurs?

WDS: “As an academic, I knew that it would be extremely challenging to be on an I-Corps team and go through the I-Corps program, but I believed that I would learn the most by this “learning-by-doing.” It was very demanding, but worthwhile – I’m still processing all that I got out of the intense experience.”

MS: “Be the leader and make the most out of your experience. You need to really think like a an entrepreneur to really understand who you need to talk to and why, and with your scientific background be able to narrow down the specific customers that you wish to target. It is easy to ask people for an interview but it is difficult to get them to actually say yes. Use all your resources, LinkedIn, Professors, research labs at your universities, etc. What I have learned is that you really need to make yourself sound and look credible. If you know enough information about your topic to have a full blown conversation…people will actually give you a chance to speak to them. Ask your interviewees if they have anyone (at least 3) individuals in their minds that they believe would be great to speak with about your product idea.”

Anything else? Like..how many customers/experts/advisors did you interview? Who were your favorites?

WDS: “From July 14 to August 24, 2014, our team was asked to do at least 100, preferably in-person, interviews. Each week of the course, the instructors told us that our team needed to do more to reach that number. When the 24 teams in our cohort made our final presentations at U. Michigan on August 25, 2014, each team that got to 100 interviews was applauded. We did 82 interviews and weren’t applauded. So, we were greatly surprised when the instructors gave out their only award to our team, for best embodying the I-Corps spirit. I felt very grateful that so many clinicians and others gave of their valuable time to talk with us, including specialists in orthopedic surgery, periodontics, oral surgery, podiatry, burns, veterinary medicine, perfusion, nursing, hospital procurement, international trade, and marketing. Several weeks into the course, the instructors told us that we really needed to go do interviews in Europe, so Manmeet, our Entrepreneurial Lead, did so in the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. A person in Switzerland even flew to Brussels to meet with Manmeet.”

MS: “We interviewed a total of 86 professionals within a 5 week time period. I would have to say that I enjoyed speaking to all of my interviewees because they were all very considerate and gave out little secrets to me in order to help guide my next steps in the program which I really enjoyed…At the UC Davis Medical Center, I had the pleasure of meeting with an Orthopedic Surgeon who is doing a great deal of research himself regarding growth factors in platelet-rich plasma, Dr. Mauro M. Giordani. He was a great pleasure to speak to because he not only shared his personal thoughts about the product idea but how others feel about it, and he gave great examples of surgeries that use thrombin or platelet-rich plasma. The way he explained the details really interested me and I really wish I was able to see the procedure where they use autologous cartilage to repair damaged cartilage in real life! In Europe, I had the great pleasure of meeting with Michael Joos who is the CEO and a co-founder of the Avance Medical Groups in Geneva, Switzerland. He flew out from Geneva to Brussels, Belgium in order to meet with me and speak to me about our product idea. He had a great personality, very enthusiastic and extremely informative. Joos was the one who really told us that there is definitely a market for our product and that it will be something that the United States will approve soon as well. He was also extremely encouraging and really acknowledged me for what I have done and what I am currently doing at such a young age. I am very grateful of the opportunities that I have been given through the I2P and the National I-Corps Teams Program. These programs have truly made me way more confident and credible than I was ever before. My public speaking skills and social skills have improved to the point that I cannot tell if I am actually that same quiet individual that I used to be.”


*Ms. Singh and Dr. Smith’s responses have been lightly edited for style and clarity.

**One benefit of working through the CSU I-Corps Site is that teams are eligible for the NSF I-Corps Teams program, even if team members have not previously been an NSF principal investigator.

    This entry was posted in Entrepreneurship, Guest Blog and tagged , by Susan Baxter. Bookmark the permalink.

    About Susan Baxter

    I'm the executive director of CSUPERB and the editor of this blog. Over my career, I've worked with teams to formulate new herbicide products, to figure out how transcription factors work in combination, to discover protein targets for new diabetes treatments, and to develop software for human population genetics studies. I started a biotechnology career because a couple of companies in Richmond, Virginia, offered me summer internships. Since then I’ve worked in major corporations, small start-ups, research institutions and academia. Now I'm working with CSUPERB, funding promising CSU students and faculty, and supporting biotechnology education and research across the 23 CSU campuses. It is a personal mission of mine to smash the myth of "the right academic pedigree." Biotechnology changes so rapidly that it is extremely limiting to ask students to chart an exact career path, focus on a particular technique, or build a defined technical skill-set. My career advice? Stay agile by keeping your mind open, exploring your own interests, and working alongside excellent colleagues on hard problems.

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