What I learned at TechArb

 

Blog post by ELP Student Dieon Roger (Systems & Mechanical Engineering | Class of 2018)

 

Last year, same time, me and my friends were accepted to TeachArb’s Spring cohort (June to August). TechArb is University of Michigan’s student venture accelerator housed under Centre for Entrepreneurship. It is a bridge that connects aspiring entrepreneurial wolverines with the entrepreneurial ecosystem.

 

Our product is an ergonomic exoskeleton that helps manufacturing workers to sit in any position, thereby reducing fatigue and long term health effects. Check it out here: https://www.infinitytechlab.com/

 

Before getting into TechArb, I was unaware about the process of kickstarting your startup idea. The biggest question that taunts an entrepreneurial student is ‘Where the hell do I get the money from?’ This thought probably discourages most from going ahead with their ideas. But it turns out money is not mostly the problem:

 

  • Understanding the customer: The first thing we were taught at TechArb is understanding the customer; by talking to them. We were mentored on how to approach and engage the customer and were also required to complete 40 customer interviews as part of the curriculum.

 

What did we learn? We had a hypothesis before we interviewed our user. Talking to them helped us refine our initial hypothesis and understand more about what the user wants, and their pain-points. It eliminated our bias in framing the problem. Talking to users is a continuous process, there is no limit on how many interviews you are supposed to have. You still need to talk to users while developing and prototyping your product.

 

  • Networking: TechArb opened doors to Ann Arbor’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, something that seemed almost non-existent to me before getting into TechArb. It introduced us to Desai Accelerator where other startups were being incubated. We attended the New Enterprise Forum at Ann Arbor Spark, a social gathering of entrepreneurs and investors who talk about cool stuff over wings and beer. Most of the people we talked to were investors who were interested in our idea of an exoskeleton. The networking session was followed by a startup showcase and a panel.

 

We also had Mentor Mondays where the TechArb cohort was invited to mingle with experts in a particular topic. These 2 hour networking sessions were held in a nearby bar where each week an expert in either law, patents, financy, design, systems thinking were invited to help us out. Besides free beer and light snacks, these sessions were helpful in getting connected to industry experts. Some of them put us in touch with relevant stakeholders to our product, which further led to more meetings and learnings.

 

  • Ecosystem Map: Key concept we learnt at the accelerator is understanding our product ecosystem. This basically comprises of stakeholders that includes
    • Decision makers: those who make the ‘purchase’ decision, who may not be the end user (Safety officers)
    • Buyers: those who execute the ‘purchase’ but not necessarily influencing the decision (Purchasing managers)
    • Users: the end user of the product (assembly-line worker)
    • Collaborators: those who directly help with the product (Logistics)
    • Competitors: that’s obvious
    • Saboteurs: they don’t necessarily make a competing product but they ‘promote’ against the product (Fake news)
    • Influencers: those who promote the solution to the problems (Workers union)

 

Besides these common stakeholders, you would also have other types of stakeholders depending in the industry. For example, for a safety-related product you would have regulating agencies and so on.

 

Another key element in ecosystem map is understanding the flow of information, goods & services, money and intangible value across these stakeholders and the product. This helps you identify your revenue and expenditure sources.

 

  • Value Chain: This is very similar to value stream mapping which you might learn in business school. Value chain represents all the processes involved in delivering your product or service to the user. This starts from basic raw materials including all the processes and operations involved in converting it to a valuable product to the distribution channels used to reach your customers.

 

An interesting concept here is understanding how new products and services are created simply by eliminating certain processes in the value chain. For example, previously to book a cab you would either have to call/text some cab agency and tell them your location to get a cab. Ridesharing services eliminate the inefficient activity of ‘call/text cab agency’ and replaces it with an app, which disrupts the entire industry.

 

I am presently leveraging value chain concepts in my internship to identify disruptive opportunities in the existing process to integrate additive manufacturing.