So what makes this new 3D printer so exciting to potential customers? It is design. The Buccaneer printer itself uses open source raspberry Pi electronics to drive the hardware, but the printer housing itself has a stunning design. With brushed aluminum and clear plexiglass, think Apple aethetics for 3D printers. Likewise, Pirate 3D (interesting company name, considering the concern with intellectual property laws and 3D printing) is developing an easy to use software interface and what it calls “smart objects” to provide drag and drop design functionality for additive manufacturing.
This is just the most recent effort to bring 3D printing to the masses. You can now buy the Cube brand of 3D printers at Staples and the newest version of Windows 8 (version 8.1) to be released later this year will have a built-in 3D printer interface. We will all have our own 3D printer soon, right there next to the WiFi router, cranking out widgets of our own custom design.
A few pointed questions revealed that his startup would be using off-the-shelf technology to create an offering in a crowded market with little differentiation. There was nothing new here. Yet, his enthusiasm provided no hint that his startup was pursuing micro-incremental innovation at best. He was clearly intoxicated with the notion of founding a startup a pitching it as a breakthrough. We see this play out at prestigious business plan competitions and incubator demo days, with orders of magnitude more thought going into a flashy pitch then went into the idea itself. It has become a lifestyle.
There are many startups being founded by people who are enthralled with the entrepreneurial lifestyle, searching for avenue to quickly channel their journey. They seek out a hot area, a busy path, safe in the assumption that if numerous other startups are actively investing time and effort in a similar opportunity, there surely must be a huge potential market. No research needed. Just tweak your version of a solution and charge ahead. You can gather-up support for your pitch from the buzz that other startups have attracted.
Entrepreneurship is not a lifestyle. At best, it is difficult and trying pursuit even for seasoned entrepreneurs who mistake a past success with the golden touch. You are likely playing with other peoples’ money and demanding enormous commitment from those who choose to join your team. Sure, entrepreneurship can be fun and rewarding, but shooting for something meaningful can make it much more worthwhile for everyone involved. High aspirations can elevate entrepreneurship from a lifestyle to a calling.
Entrepreneurship as a calling . . . now that sounds more inspiring!
What I heard in those questions setup an intreging inquiry: does the lean startup model best lend itself to startups pursuing consumer offerings? Does it work with more
technologically challenging innovation, say, in cutting edge fracking technologies that are impossible to test with simple web-based A-B testing? How can I bring my idea to potential customers using a lean approach when the idea itself may demand robust data to prove its virtues?
All great questions. The lean startup apporach, in my mind, can be simplified several ways. First, the apporach demands real, robust customer feedback in the development phase. This is the foundation for the pivot concept. Second, the lean method provides a holistic review of assumptions and testing of assumptions in defining the business model. This is the essence of the business model canvas. What these components share, along with the lean startup approach itself, is the gathering of information relevant to the startup opportunity in question. It is about education. Learning is a powerful tool. I beleive in the power of the lean startup apporach because is provides for a dynamic, interactive process for defining and refining a new business opportunity. It pre-stages the need for a business plan, which become largely static the moment it is created.
The audience got it. The lean startup is about education and research . . . something every PhD student can relate to.
Generally, university - company collaborations can be challenging because of the vastly different clock-speeds in getting things done. In addition, conflicts between the university’s desire to publish and companies desire to gain a proprietary position in a commercial effort can cause prioritization mis-matches. Working with a traditional university Tech Transfer Office (TTO) can be a nightmare, as the larger universities have a “my way or the highway” mentality. I guess the notion of treating the partner company as a “customer” has just not caught on. Too bad, because a positive long-term relationship that can be built to benefit both parties enormously. A key, I believe, is for the university to gain some empathy.
Many universities interact with external companies through the Development Office and the TTO. Neither are typically staffed by seasoned business people who can anticipate real business needs and communicate how the university can help make life less difficult for partner companies. Rather, they are staffed by junior people with little industry experience or senior people with very narrow experience. Any people with expertise on current Industry trends? Nope, we don’t have time for that. Someone who has actually run a company? No way. How about a successful entrepreneur? No. Those folks are the people these universities hope to get meetings with.
This state of affairs will have to change, and soon. Global innovation efforts are accelerating and companies will seek out the best collaboration partners available. Universities have a lot to offer, but even more to gain. Universities are scrambling to find new funding sources as public funding and philanthropic funding decline rapidly. Governmental funding is in the process of a long-term decline. Philanthropic funding sources are bypassing universities as they partner with local community efforts that have a higher profile public impact or NGO’s that have a more intoxicating vision and purpose. Who does this leave? Companies - large ands small. These entities want to see a real return on their investment, however, and universities have trouble talking in their language and relating to their competitive needs. I recently wrote an article on building ‘Impact Collaborations’ with universities for the Product and Development Management Association’s (PDMA) Visions Magazine (Q1 2013 Issue) and I have received some international feedback from readers with scary tales about their frustration with building successful collaborations with U.S. research universities.
Universities are doing a lot of self-examining these days. The rise of MOOCs, student anger with ever-increasing educational costs, and the increasing criticism of the real world inapplicability of what some universities call “research” is likely to cause significant disruption in U.S. higher education in the next several years. Add to this disruption the need to fund bigger and bigger budgets within those large universities. Building collaborations with companies is an obvious opportunity, but universities need to educate themselves about the realities of becoming a collaboration partner of choice. It is possible, but the status quo will not be enough.