Fall Regional NSF I-Corps program ends with 11 start-up presentations

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

Entrepreneurs representing 11 start-ups showcased what they had learned after an intensive three-week customer discovery process during an afternoon event yesterday on the Cherokee Farm Innovation Campus at the University of Tennessee (UT).

The event was the finale of the latest Fall Regional cohort that is part of the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (NSF I-Corps) program. It is a joint effort of two UT entities – the UT Research Foundation and Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at UT, Knoxville – and Three Roots Capital.

After an October 1 program launch, the individual entrepreneurs and teams of entrepreneurs met with anywhere from about 10 to as many as three dozen prospective customers to seek validation for their technology idea or input on ways to make it more viable commercially.

Shawn Carson, Lecturer in UTK’s Haslam College of Business, reminded the participants that this was the first step in an on-going process of ensuring that they continually listen to the voice of the market. On several occasions, the long-time player in the local entrepreneurial ecosystem urged presenters to conduct more interviews to ensure they were on the right track.

Carson also suggested that the participants might want to consider applying for the national I-Corps program that provides $50,000 to each successful applicant, but requires a minimum of 100 customer discussions during the next phase of the program.

“They will be harder on you than we have been,” he said with a grin.

Yesterday’s event featured several start-ups that we have previously profiled on including EasyWhip; Speak for Myself; and Lux Semiconductors, a participant in the second cohort of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s (ORNL) “Innovation Crossroads” (IC) program. Lux was joined by two other members of cohort two – Eonix Energy and Nth Cycle.

In a unique twist, however, the Founders of the three IC start-ups did not conduct the customer discovery process themselves, instead relying on entrepreneurially-focused students from the Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education jointly offered by UT and ORNL.

Almost every one of the presenters suggested some shift from their original hypothesis after talking with prospective customers. Some of the shifts were slight, while others were more significant. The top honor in the latter category goes to VolTank which shifted from a manual power case to a self-defense alarm keychain.

Many of the customer discussions were conducted by phone although some were handled via email or even social media. The top award for tenacity or at least energy expended probably goes to Walter Cromer of Eden Concepts who travelled nearly 1,900 miles to conduct 13 in-person interviews in addition to nine by phone.

He was a participant in this summer’s AgLaunch Bootcamp where Cromer described his idea to help farmers reduce their labor costs by eliminating a step in the process. How was he planning to do it? Pre-germinated seeds would be planted directly in the soil rather than starting in a greenhouse before being transplanted to a garden.

“Our thesis did not change much,” Cromer said after participating in I-Corps. He did, however, gain several important insights – “weeds are a key concern for growers,” greenhouse growers could be a customer group he needs to consider, and hemp grown for CBD (cannabidiol oil) is not a candidate crop.

Other start-ups presenting were Ultra 3D Technologies, ExoFlex, Vulcan Composites, and Crowd Crunch.

Prior to the presentations, Launch Tennessee’s Jill Van Beke outlined several programs that the statewide organization offers entrepreneurs including its two mentor networks, micro-grants to help prepare Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) applications, a matching fund for recipients of SBIR and STTR awards, and a new Impact Fund for small seed investments.

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