Milwaukee NSF I-Corps Site Program Goes Virtual

Shown above is an example of a virtual synchronous team booster session (Microsoft Teams) and an interview unpacking collaborative team board (Mural).

Milwaukee NSF I-Corps Site Program Goes Virtual – Ilya Avdeev, Brian Thompson and Loren Peterson

As a founder, you cannot outsource customer discovery to someone else or replace face-to-face customer interviews with surveys or phone calls. So, what would you do if face-to-face is not allowed, some key customers might be furloughed or no longer with a company? If you are an I-Corps instructor, how do you foster a cohort comradery among academic entrepreneurs and peer-learning through video conferencing?

We, the I-Corps Site teaching team, tried to answer these and many other questions during the turbulent Spring of 2020. This was the time to experiment with and stress-test Lean Launch curriculum and pedagogies we successfully developed and applied in the past, as well as to find the most appropriate collaboration platform to replace physical workshops.

Our experiment – a four-week series of weekly 30-min booster sessions with five individual teams scaffolding their customer discovery journey between the meetings. No lectures. No exercises. Just high touch mentoring and navigation through the pandemic storm. Our tools – Microsoft Teams for videoconferencing and Mural for business model canvas design, capturing interview highlights and synthesis of new business model hypotheses.

We have learned that customers would talk to our teams virtually, but getting interviews scheduled was harder than before. Clearly, the COVID-19 pandemic compressed an opportunity space for discovery among the team members and customers alike.

We have learned that visual collaboration on Mural is not just possible, but quite enjoyable, allowing for a healthy mix of synchronous and asynchronous individual and teamwork. The only missing link was a cohort dynamic, since each team worked independently.

We have learned that 30 minutes is not enough, because there is so much to discuss with the teams. We were also feeling a need for I-Corps mentors that were missing during this experiment. That amplifies the importance of the role they play in the process: from helping teams get interviews and pacing them to helping develop business model hypotheses grounded in the data from the interviews.

We have also learned, that academic entrepreneurs we have privilege working with are amazing, generous and open-minded people! We are feeling inspired, encouraged and motivated to offer the Summer 2020 I-Corps program (July 20 – August 17) in a fully virtual format. To apply, visit our website.