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August 20, 2019 | Tom Ballard

UT planning two-week I-Corps South session starting October 3

“I-Corps South is for anyone developing a technology which they want to build a company around,” Shawn Carson says. He’s the University of Tennessee’s (UT) Program Director for the National Science Foundation (NSF)-connected initiative that is now accepting applications (click here) for its regional cohort for this fall.

The two-week program, which begins October 3, is designed to equip researchers and entrepreneurs with the tools to validate the value proposition of their ideas from the perspective of potential customers.

“A business requires customers and customers decide how they want to spend their money,” Carson explains. “I- Corps teaches how to understand what customers need, which in turn provides insight into what triggers their buying decisions.  If the technology doesn’t address that need, the customer won’t buy it.  We call that the value proposition.  In short, I-Corps teaches how to validate your value proposition.”

For the past few years, two UT entities – the UT Research Foundation and the UT Knoxville Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation – have teamed-up to offer the I-Corps programming. This fall’s activities include three workshop sessions focused on customer discovery interspersed with at least 30 interviews with prospective customers that participants will conduct before they share their findings in the finale on October 17.

New for this fall will be a tie-in with Life Science Tennessee’s (LST) “Scipreneur Challenge” which the statewide association has offered elsewhere and will be launching in Knoxville this fall. Participants in that program will also participate in the I-Corps South activities, and we’ll have a future article on the LST initiative. (EDITOR”S NOTE: We will spotlight the “Scipreneur Challenge” in tomorrow’s edition of

So, how would entrepreneurs benefit from participating in the two-week experience?

“We teach how to identify a customer who can make a buying decision, and we teach the right way to engage with that person to make sure your get accurate information,” Carson says. “Then we guide you through the process of interviewing 20 or more customers.  After you interview 40 or 50 people, you will see trends appear, almost magically, and you learn things about your business you cannot learn any other way.  Everyone learns something that causes them to adjust the direction of their company.  We call these ‘pivots’, and we celebrate them.”

Carson has been involved in working with entrepreneurs for a number of years. As a result, he says that inventors, researchers and technology developers tend to have a natural bias in favor of their idea, something that could be unrealistic.

“They tend to place a very high value on it (the idea) because of their personal investment of time,” he notes, adding that they might say, “Well of course people will buy this because I spent three years and a half million dollars developing it.” The customer discovery process helps reveal customer problems that need solutions and shows the inventor how the customer will make the buying decision.

“In I-Corps, we like to say that we are here to divorce you from your love affair with your technology, and the earlier in the development process, the better,” Carson says.

For those considering applying for a federal Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant, there’s another advantage of participating in an I-Corps program. “Your ability to win an SBIR grant is greatly influenced by how well you describe your value proposition in your grant proposal,” Carson says. “I have heard anecdotes from SBIR awardees that their phone interviews with NSF consisted mostly of questions that come out of customer discovery. Winning an SBIR carries odds of about 15 percent. Those who go through I-Corps find their chances increase to about 70 percent.”

For more information, review the I-Corps flyer (Fall UT I-Corps 2019 Flyer).

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