Market research: Transitioning from ‘Me-First’ to ‘Customer-First’

The Lean LaunchPad program trains scientists to talk less and listen more.

Coming up with new ideas for innovative products and services is second nature to many academic scientists. But as most academic science is often self-driven by sheer passion, it is hard for scientists to cast aside their personal biases and truly assess the market need for their invention. 

In the summer of 2015, I participated in the I-Corps Lean LaunchPad for Life Science/Healthcare program organized by the Entrepreneurship Center at UC San Francisco. This program trains scientists to conduct unbiased market analysis and truly gauge the pressing problems that concern the specific industry(ies) relevant to their invention. Although at its outset, the program appears to be a glorified market research exercise to the know-it-all scientist, it enforces several activities that are necessary for researchers who are looking to start businesses based on their inventions.

Teams are generally made up of three to five students, researchers, or professors, and start the program with an idea of a novel product or service, which could be at any stage of development, from concept to prototype. Team members are trained to seek out and conduct one-on-one interviews with potential customers, who could perhaps one day be buying, utilizing, or influencing their particular product or service.

The key, and rather unintuitive, feature about these interviews is that researchers are asked to refrain from divulging any information about their invention to the customers before the interview. Instead, they are trained to ask several probing open-ended questions, in order to gain a deep and unbiased understanding of the ‘real’ problems faced by the customers, either on their jobs or in their specific industry. For example, one common question in most interviews is, “If you had a magic wand, what is the one thing that you would fix that would solve your biggest problem(s)?”

Teams are trained to identify biases in customers’ answers and steer conversations to obtain specific pieces of information. The program lays stress on in-person and video conference interviews, where researchers learn to pick up visual cues and assess body language as indicators of truthfulness, excitement, concerns, or biases. The number of interviews required to graduate the program is in the range of 70-80 over a span of ~two months, i.e. ~10 per week.

Based on the answers and information gathered, and combined with mentoring support from the course instructors, researchers package their innovations to address the most crucial problems faced by a specific market. In other words, teams learn to find true ‘product/market fit’. Depending on whether a fit is found and deemed worthy enough to invest time and money towards the launch of a potentially viable business, teams make a Go/No-Go decision at the end of the program.

Of course, most researchers come into the program having already made a ‘Go’ decision in their minds. But at the end of the program, a more realistic decision is made upon the assessment of hard data gathered from the interviews. The concept of concluding a finding after collecting and interpreting data is not new for any scientist, and thus, this approach is more likely to result in a better-informed decision.

The above-described interviewing skills are seldom included in graduate school curricula or postdoctoral training regimes. In fact, the situation is quite the opposite; scientists are usually taught to publicize their work as heavily as possible, in excruciating detail, even when the majority of the audience is not relevant to their specific field of research, or frankly doesn’t care. In business however, the aim is to have a product/service that is valuable to as many people as possible, in order to capture the largest addressable market. Thus, the strategy of casting a wide net with questions, and listening to what the customers have to say before telling them what the researchers themselves have pays huge dividends.

Personally, the wealth of information that my team gathered through Lean LaunchPad was unfathomable for me at any of the preparative or initial stages of the program. Several pre-existing notions of mine went out the window within the first three days of conducting interviews. After the course, I was pleasantly awestruck when I compared notes from my final interviews with those from the first few. The impact of open-ended questions was evident with unending pages of information, in stark contrast with a list of 10 questions and their one-word answers.

Besides the astounding amount of industry-specific knowledge, the interviewing skills that I developed have helped me maintain contacts with all of the 75+ customer companies that I interviewed. Needless to say, this was a truly transformative experience that was instrumental in helping me understand, not only the market needs for my technology, but also the philosophical transitions needed to be made in order to bring an academic lab invention to market.

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