3 Takeaways from the NIH’s iCorp Program

By: Andrew Kerr

This week we are set to give our final presentation and complete the NIH’s iCorp program. The program is designed as an intensive, deep dive into the customer discovery process requiring participating teams to complete 100+ customer interviews in only 8-weeks.  The goal is to ask hard questions of potential customers to see if there is truly a product-market fit and if customers would spend real money on our solution.  

The iCorp program, which stands for Innovation Corps, is a program designed and funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to promote entrepreneurship in the life sciences. It is an intensive eight-week training program that aims to help researchers and entrepreneurs identify and validate commercial opportunities for their innovations by conducting customer discovery and developing business models. 

The program provides a structured curriculum, mentorship from experienced entrepreneurs and business leaders, and up to $50,000 in funding to support the development of a commercialization plan. The program is highly competitive, and participants are selected based on the strength of their proposed innovation and their ability to conduct customer discovery in a meaningful way. The iCorp program has been instrumental in helping early-stage startups in the life sciences sector to gain traction, secure funding, and ultimately bring their innovations to market.

Although my team at FortyAU has been providing product strategy and design consulting for years, this was a unique opportunity to start with a very early stage concept and navigate through several strategic pivots.  After a very hectic and fulfilling 8-weeks, here are a few reflections on what we discovered:

  1. Whatever your initial idea is, you are probably/definitely wrong.  At FortyAU, we are always on the lookout for clients that aren’t exactly certain what they need to build and are willing to be honest about that.  As consultants, we always favor clients that are open to true collaboration and co-creation.  Of course, any founder should have some strongly held convictions about their market, their customers, or their solution but this process has just underscored the fact that being too sure, too early is actually a huge disadvantage.  During the customer discovery process, it is so important to try and not bias the conversation, or selectively listen for what you want to hear.  Openness to being wrong and the mental flexibility to pivot meaningfully are vital during these early stages.
  1. The power of a healthy network.  Simply finding 100 qualified individuals to interview within 8-weeks is an enormous challenge. This process was invigorating for me because it gave me a reason to reach out to former colleagues, friends, and people I had always admired from afar.  When you take the risk of reaching out, it is amazing to see how helpful, engaged, and generous with their time that even very busy people can be. I was exceedingly thankful for the opportunity to revitalize these dormant relationships and found myself asking why I had waited so long?  A healthy, growing network is valuable in so many ways. It is important not only to reach out but also to make time for those small favors and courtesies that keep it strong.  To anyone in my network, I currently owe many favors so please reach out if I can help in any way!
  1. There is hope for healthcare.  Working in and around the healthcare “system” for nearly twenty years it is easy to become jaded.  The industry is awash in failed promises and half-measures from payment reform, to population health, and interoperability.  Over the past few weeks, I had the opportunity to talk to high-level individuals about the gaps in our system and have authentic one-on-one conversations about potential solutions.  In nearly every conversation, there was a glimmer of hope always followed by “you who you should talk to next…”.  By following this trail of engaged clinicians and innovators honestly working toward change, I was able to come across new business models, innovative experiments, and actual results.  I am now finishing the program inspired that better ways are emerging.  The pace is still slower than I would like, but the battle is being waged well and if good people continue to fight the good fight then real progress is possible. 

The NIH’s iCorp program has provided us with a unique opportunity to navigate through several strategic pivots and gain valuable insights into the customer discovery process. One of the key takeaways from the program is that it is important not to be too sure too early and remain open to being wrong. This requires mental flexibility and the ability to pivot meaningfully during the early stages of product development. 

Additionally, they highlight the importance of having a healthy network, which can be leveraged for reaching out to potential customers, and to revitalize dormant relationships. The program has also inspired us with a glimmer of hope for healthcare, despite the challenges faced by the industry.

Overall, the iCorp program has been an invigorating experience for us, and we are finishing the program with renewed inspiration and a deeper understanding of the customer discovery process.

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