“Now that would be an amazing app for patients!” she exclaimed to her colleague. “Agreed. We could have our own little startup on the side,” he replied. I was wandering the halls of the hospital for the first time in months, and overhearing this short snippet of conversation led me to reflect on all I had learned in the past year.
After completing my third year of medical school, I chose to take a year-long leave to pursue a master’s degree in bioengineering innovation and design at the Whiting School of Engineering. I have spent the last 12 months immersed in entrepreneurship, design and startup culture. I’ve also had the chance to compete with my design team in a number of pitch competitions, with nearly $40,000 in prize money to show for it. Throughout this intensive and experiential year of learning, I’ve made a list of strategies to generate great ideas and to give these concepts real momentum. Here are my top five tips to create opportunities and get your startup off the ground.
- Focus on politicized issues and trending technology.
While it can be challenging to be yet another startup founded on a buzzword like “blockchain technology” or “artificial intelligence,” focusing on novel and trending technologies and hot-button politicized issues can help you rapidly gain significantly more traction among collaborators and investors. Of course, you have to apply these technologies in new and innovative ways to stand out among the crowd. It is also possible to leverage the momentum of politicized issues to create a successful new business. One interesting example of this strategy is burgeoning startup Street Smarts VR, which has capitalized on the problem of police brutality to “provide distributed, immersive virtual reality training to police departments to improve officer judgement.”
- Create new markets.
The creation of new market space has long been viewed as a key innovation strategy and method of value creation, but deliberately exposing new markets can be extremely difficult. Combining established technologies in fresh and unexpected ways, having deep interdisciplinary dialogues and keeping an eye out for developing niches in your area of expertise can help. We recently met founders of the startup Acarí, which has created a market for the “devil fish.” Through workshops, presentations, tasting events, restaurant partnerships and the launch of a sustainable jerky in the U.S., the team has supported the livelihoods of Mexican fishermen and improved environmental sustainability of the region’s fishery.
- Task shift and de-skill.
A number of the business pitches I witnessed this year were based on the principal of shifting tasks from highly trained individuals to unspecialized ones, and de-skilling technical activities so more people can carry them out. This strategy applies to a vast number of industries and activities, both inside and outside of health care, and can be accomplished in a variety of ways, from automation and robotics to cloud-based services and smartphones. One of our design projects this year, NeMo, involves task shifting identification of neonatal illness from community health workers to mothers through a smartphone/wearable system. We also met the founders of a startup from India called Thinkerbell Labs, which recently launched a device to enable blind individuals to learn braille without the help of a one-on-one specialized tutor.
- Never stop asking questions.
Knowing your niche, the experts, the customers and everyone in between is invaluable. Talk to many different people and never stop. Ask thoughtful questions to all types of stakeholders, from key opinion leaders to the janitor. Keep this dialogue going as your idea evolves. It is paramount to really understand your customer and what is valuable to them. Establishing a strong network of collaborators and mentors is also key. You want just the right combination of experience, constructive criticism, frank feedback and positive reinforcement.
- Go three steps farther than anyone else, then pivot, and never give up.
Almost no idea is truly novel. Someone somewhere has thought of your epiphany before. What makes an epiphany worth something is when a team takes it and runs like mad with it. It is important to take an original concept and then develop it not one step, not two, but three steps farther than anyone else has. Believe in it, nurture it and lose sleep over it. Many startups also pivot drastically and frequently throughout their early history, changing their concept or direction in response to new information, challenges and competition. For example, Twitter started as Odeo, a network to search and subscribe to podcasts. When they realized their company was dwindling and losing ground to competitors, a micro-blogging platform side project conceived by a few employees became the company’s fundamental service.
Finally, there is no denying that the early days of any company have many ups and downs. There are times when the work seems hopeless. Weathering these storms is the only way to cross the ocean. If it was easy, everyone would do it!
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