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Lean Startup principles offer valuable insights for tech commercialization


By Jesse Schwartz
Published: June 7th, 2017

While Lean Startup methodology, first put forward in 2008 by Eric Reis and widely disseminated by serial entrepreneur Steve Blank, has been adopted by many in industry, it has not caught on quite as quickly in technology transfer circles. Although it has been implemented by a number of universities following Blank’s “Fireside Chat” at the AUTM 2015 Annual Meeting, experts are still pondering exactly how broadly applicable the methodology is to tech transfer. There is general consensus, however, that at least some of its principles can enhance commercialization efforts.

“Some of those [Lean Startup] concepts are very analogous to tech transfer, and if applied systematically can help improve the process as well,” asserted Becky Stoughton, MBA, CLP, Vice President of Fuentek, LLC, who chaired a panel on the topic at the 2017AUTM Annual Meeting in Hollywood, FL.

The “customer discovery” aspect of the lean model, which requires an in-depth series of interviews with prospects who would be customers of a business, has perhaps resonated most with TTOs. “Customer development is very important,” Stoughton emphasized. “Get out of the building and talk to potential customers. Is that even the right customer? Do they even care about the technology?”

A Lean Startup-based program at Auburn University, aptly called the “Customer Discovery” program, is supplemented in part by the university’s “Customer Discovery Fund.” It was initiated after Auburn was contacted by Georgia Tech about that university’s lean-inspired “Startup Gauntlet” and a mini-I-Corps program, said licensing officer Troy Brady, PhD. “We tried it out, and with help put on the program,” he said. “We hoped to get technology that moved forward, but it is also possible that cases end up not finding a market.” Even then, he added, the approach has benefits. “You do not need to spend as much time and resources [as with a start-up], but you have some validation to go back to discuss this with the inventor and make a decision mutually,” he explained.

The Auburn program devotes three weeks to training teams committed to specific projects. “We meet with them, discuss the process of going out and talking to folks the right way, and continue to give feedback as they build their canvas” and begin to develop a minimum viable product, Brady said.

Malcolm Townes, MBA, associate director of technology transfer and economic development with Missouri University of Science and Technology, also places strong emphasis on customer identification. ‘We focus on the very front end — customer discovery to achieve product market fit — and really apply it in a very narrow way,” he stated. “It’s better to understand what not to develop and help the faculty be guided.”

After working with the Lean methodology, Townes says he “eventually saw it was useful for more than just spinouts.” Other applications, he noted, included how to get more throughput, more licenses, and more royalties. “Better quality of a portfolio makes licensing easier, so increasing the quality of the IP portfolio became a possible goal of Lean,” he said. “Also, companies wanted you to be more down the pike — they wanted some risk issues to be addressed, to be less speculative. So, we could maybe address market risk.”

A detailed article on the application of Lean Startup principles to tech transfer activity appears in the May issue of Technology Transfer Tactics. To subscribe and get the full article, plus access to the entire 10-year archive of best practices and proven success strategies for TTOs, CLICK HERE.

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