Engage with potential customers early, don’t rely on assumptions, sci-tech innovators told

Sci-tech innovation

Great sci-tech innovations are trapped in the university system because there has been a failure to properly test them with potential customers in mind, according to Steve Brodie, the new Managing Director of CSIRO’s ON Accelerator program.

Established in 2015, ON assists researchers from the fields of science and technology to validate – and discover a real-world application for – their research via two accelerator programs that bring together expertise from established researchers, entrepreneurs and mentors. ON Accelerate is a 12-week, full-time accelerator program for research teams with around a third of the program delivered through face-to-face workshops. Meanwhile, ON Prime is an 8-week, part-time pre-accelerator involving around five face-to-face sessions and a ten-hour commitment per team member, one of whom must be in a paid research role, with performance bonuses available for each team. [Note: Dynamic Business recently interviewed ON Prime graduate Retha Wiesner, Founder of WiRE – Women in Rural, Regional, and Remote Enterprise]

Brodie, a commercialisation specialist who previously served as the Open Innovation Manager at the University of NSW, spoke to Dynamic Business about joining CSIRO’s sci-tech accelerator and the barriers faced by sci-tech innovators.

Steve Brodie

Steve Brodie, MD, ON Accelerator

DB: What was your motivation for joining CSIRO’s ON Accelerator?

Brodie: I’m a research scientist who has studied and worked in the UK and throughout Europe. Originally, I worked on blue sky ideas before moving over to product development, where I put research findings to use in high-tech industries. As such, my career has involved trying to figure how scientists can find a real-world use for their good ideas.

As a country, Australia is very good at the input side of the innovation equation, i.e. there are good ideas, but not so good at the output side. I wanted to work with CSIRO, through ON Accelerator, to help research teams from across Australia’s 41 universities put their research to good use.

DB: Can you briefly explain why ON Accelerator was established?

Brodie: ON was originally established by CSIRO in 2015 to get its own researchers to think about the impact their findings could have on the world and help them engage with potential customers sooner. Simply put, CSIRO didn’t want ideas to be left on the shelf. In July, last year, CSIRO began offering ON Accelerator to external research organisation, including universities. So far, we’ve had over a hundred teams go through Prime and over 30 teams have gone through Accelerate. 

DB: Do many sci-tech ideas end up gathering cobwebs on uni shelves?

Brodie: There are a lot of ideas within the university sector that aren’t going anywhere. My experience working with university researchers is that their ideas are great from a science perspective but they’re not always good from a customer solution perspective. There’s a mismatch between why the science was developed, where it’s at and the problem the researchers are attempting to solve. In other words, problem/solution fit is an issue – there are really good ideas which are not really solving problems for potential customers or partners because they’ve not really been tested with potential customers – either well enough or soon enough to make it worthwhile pursuing. Another problem is that less well-resourced universities can focus less on the problem/solution fit.

DB: So, researchers need help finding a commercial application?

Brodie: That’s part of it. What the ON program does (particularly ON Prime) is encourage researchers to get into that mindset of engaging with the outside world – i.e. potential customers and partners – sooner rather than later. It’s better for researchers to have insights from potential customers and industries early on, rather than spending years travelling down their research pathway only to find there isn’t a good product/solution fit. ON primarily acellerates the process of validating researcher assumptions and gets their engagement with industry moving really well.

DB: Is the point of ON that the researchers become entrepreneurs?

Brodie: Not really, per say, although sometimes that’s the case. We’re really interested in researchers being intrapreneurs, i.e. having an entrepreneurial mindset while staying in your own organisation and learning the tools and skills required to engage with potential customers and partners. ON Accelerator helps researchers identify a runway for their ideas, and getting them the support they need to make it happen, which could mean joining forces with a serial entrepreneur.

DB: What can sci-tech innovators do to overcome poor problem/solution fit?

Brodie: They must get to the bottom of what their potential customers are trying to get done as soon as possible, rather than making assumptions and hypothesis based on the fact that they know their product. In other words, they should take the lean startup/innovation approach – know your customers; bring them close to you early in the product development phase; learn, iterate and improve; and then go back to the customer.

They should also bring their partners on this journey sooner rather than later. By partners, I mean those groups external to their startup who they need to have good relationships with – for example, offshore product development or external designers – because we know startups are not always able to do everything in-house from day one.