Understanding the Human Element of Startups: Inside NCIIA’s VentureLab


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in unrelated markets. Such was my experience when speaking with Benjamin Mitchell, one of the founders of Baisikeli Ugunduzi, a bicycle parts manufacturer and distributer for Boda Boda cyclist taxi drivers in Kenya. I learned that in Kenya, as well as in parts of West Africa, two-wheeler riders actually welcome rainy days because it gives them time to relax and socialize with the other riders who are seeking shelter from the downpour. For me, this information was extremely useful because it showed that, even though in parts of Africa there may have seemed to be a need for two-wheeler weather protection, the reality is it would not be an appropriate market for us.

In addition to the peer-to-peer learning, the participants benefited from insight that only James’s years of experience as an international startup consultant for an assortment of companies could provide. His experience on how to protect intellectual property in a developing country was just one of the many issues we addressed. My favorite example is that of Kickstart International, a company that developed a manual water pump that works like a Stairmaster, thereby allowing farmers in developing countries to manually irrigate their crops. In order to compete with and differentiate themselves from imitators, the company painted its product with a very noticeable shade of blue that is almost impossible to obtain in certain countries where they operate, such as India.

Apart from being a fun and interactive learning experience, the NCIIA Sustainable Vision VentureLab was a great place to discover companies that have developed fascinating technologies and devised creative solutions to solve rampant, global problems. One such company is Inserogen, a biotech startup that emerged out of a student-led research project at UC Davis that has developed a technology that enables the use of non-transgenic tobacco plants to produce proteins in order to rapidly and cost-effectively manufacture vaccines. Maa-Bara is another company that has designed a creative solution to another chronic problem: using locally accessible and affordable materials, they are able to assemble “aquaponics” kits to provide inhabitants of the Niger Delta with the means to fish and cultivate crops year-round. This is essential in a country where oil spills, amongst other factors, result in the widespread degradation of the soil and water, thereby destroying the livelihood of thousands.

Even though all the participants had great ideas and products, many were struggling with essential difficulties that they learned to resolve over the course of their five-day stint in the VentureLab. For me it was a unique experience because I learned so much about certain aspects of a business that are not stressed enough in the academic or corporate world: that of the human operating system, as James coined it. I highly recommend the VentureLab for people who are looking to equip themselves with the tools that will allow them to think big, start small, grow fast and build a successful business.

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Maxime Pinto is co-founder and chief marketing officer at Roof For Two, a Boston-based startup focused on the Indian market. Follow @

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