What is the top reason a startup company fails? Surprisingly, it is not because of competition, money issues, or poor marketing. It is because customers don’t want what startups are selling.

I-Corps is a National Science Foundation-funded program offered throughout the country which aims to prevent startup failure by identifying what potential customers really want out of a new technology. The Innovation Binghamton I-Corps Site is facilitated by Binghamton University’s Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation Partnerships and has already proved itself a crucial tool for strategically guiding technologies to market.

Olga Petrova, an I-Corps instructor for the Binghamton Regional program, has a research background of her own.

“Researchers have an academic mindset,” Petrova points out. “They set a laser focus on their technology. Sometimes, this focus can be a detriment in the long run because they could be developing a product the customer doesn’t actually want.”

Accepted teams participate in three in-person workshops and two web sessions over three weeks. During that time, two instructors work hands-on with the teams to build and hone a business model canvas with the goal of determining potential target customer segments. The teams first formulate hypotheses regarding who will use their product and then learn the skills and methods needed to test these hypotheses through direct interviews with the potential customers. In order to facilitate the interview process, the Innovation Binghamton I-Corps Site provides $3,000 to the teams to cover travel expenses.

Program Director and I-Corps instructor Tony Frontera tells teams to “get out of the building”.

“There are no answers for a business in the lab,” Frontera explains. “They have to get out to the customer to understand their needs on a day to day basis, whether it’s in their jobs or everyday lives. Researchers consider the broad impact of their research, but don’t often verify if this impact is practical or even wanted by their customer.”

Teams going through the I-Corps program will end up conducting 20-30 interviews. By interviewing potential customers, teams can determine the direction their technology should take, pivoting their idea to best match customer need.

Following completion of the regional Binghamton I-Corps program, teams can apply to participate at the National level in an intensive 7-week program that expands their understanding of business model development, requires them to conduct at least 100 customer discovery interviews, and provides $50,000 in funding from the NSF.

Over 60 teams have participated in the Binghamton regional I-Corps program since its start in 2017 with 8 teams having been accepted into the National program to date and multiple more in progress.

The most recent I-Corps cohort comprised of a range of medical and energy technologies interested in bringing their research to market.

Matt Gill, CEO of Enhance VR had a major change in focus after completing the I-Corps program.

“Before the program Enhance VR focused on a next-generation Virtual Reality motion simulator. After researching the market and talking to potential customers our focus changed completely and we now create Virtual Reality solutions to improve education — bringing the classroom into the 21st century.”

Visit the Koffman Incubator website to learn more and apply to the I-Corps program.