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develop a “minimum viable product” such as a device prototype or a mobile app or website. Each week, they’re required to conduct 10 to 15 in-person or online video interviews with customers. (That’s the “get out of the building” part.) They use what they learn to fill out and update their business model canvas, a graphical tool for visualizing all the internal and external elements needed to build a viable company. In class, they split into cohorts for advanced lectures, weekly presentations, and critiques from instructors and fellow students.
It’s roughly the same structure Blank and other instructors have been using since 2011 for the Innovation Corps, a National Science Foundation program designed to help more NSF grantees get their ideas to market. The Innovation Corps, in turn, grew out of the Lean LaunchPad course Blank co-taught at Stanford University with Jon Feiber of Mohr Davidow Ventures and Ann Miura-Ko of Floodgate in 2010.
In a blog post, Blank writes that what finally convinced him of the need for a dedicated Lean LaunchPad course for life sciences companies was watching a few biotech, device, and digital-health companies go through the Innovation Corps program and successfully navigate major pivots—-changes to their business model canvas or even their core technology. A big pivot can end in catastrophe if a startup waits until after it’s already raised and spent tens of millions of dollars. But an early course change can save years of wasted effort.
Blank admits that digital-health companies and medical-device are probably more agile when the time comes to pivot. “Therapeutics and diagnostics are not on the same level because they’re science-based,” he says. “But on the other hand, what you can learn in 10 weeks is whether the damn thing is worth doing at all. Just teaching PI’s [principal investigators] how to think about partners and targets and markets would be a major accomplishment.”
More than 65 teams applied to join the UCSF course, and the 28 teams selected include 115 students overall. “There are just some amazing teams,” Blank says. “One guy showed up to the interview in surgical scrubs. Turned out he’s the head of surgery at UCSF.”
Blank has briefed officials at the National Institutes of Health about the course. If the teams do well, it could lead to discussions about “franchising” the UCSF course at a number of campuses with heavy NIH funding, the same way the National Science Foundation helped to scale up the original Stanford course.
“Our goal is to get them to start thinking about adopting this as a standard for how you teach commercialization,” Blank says. “For devices and digital-health startups, this is a no-brainer. We’ll see how much benefit we can get out of it for therapeutics and diagnostics—the question is how much getting out of the building is going to help there. But the NIH already believes in at least 50 percent of what we’re doing.”
Already, the reception to the class from student teams and venture investors has been “amazing,” Blank says. “Even more amazing, to be honest, is what an unfilled need this seems to fill. I was the last guy on earth who got it—I just had to show up.”
Here’s a great video interview on customer development in the life sciences between Steve Blank and Iodine co-founder Thomas Goetz, former executive editor of Wired. The interview was part of Rock Health’s Innovation Summit on August 8-9, 2013.
UPDATE 10/11/13: And here’s a video clip from the Oct. 8 session of the UCSF course.
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