Lessons from the startup world


By Matthew Wallenstein

It all started a couple of years ago, with a mid-career crisis shortly after the relief of obtaining academic tenure. I was successful by the traditional metrics of academia—publishing papers, procuring grants, training students—but I no longer felt like that was enough. I wanted my work to make a positive difference in the world, but I didn’t really know how to make that happen. If you had found yourself sitting next to me on a plane and asked me why taxpayers should be funding my research into soil microbes that do important things like clean our water and recycle plant nutrients, I would have given you a finely crafted answer about how my work helps better predict carbon cycling and informs policy. But the truth, I felt, was that it was several steps removed from making a tangible difference.

Upon realizing that I wanted to do more applied work, I found the starting point in one of my existing projects: studying how microbes affect plant growth and tolerance to stressors like drought. With one of my postdocs, Colin Bell, I began to explore the possibility of developing beneficial bacteria to help produce more food with less environmental impact. We decided to work on bacteria that solubilize phosphorus, making it more available to plants and thereby supporting their growth. Within just a few months, we had developed a combination of four bacteria that were 30 times better than the average soil bacteria community at making phosphorus available.

With this preliminary data in hand, we started thinking about how we might translate this finding into a product that others could use. We were drawn to the idea of starting our own company. I had always been interested in entrepreneurship—as a high schooler I started landscaping and auto detailing companies and won a statewide entrepreneurship competition—but I had little idea how to launch a startup. So, in the early summer of 2014, Colin and I applied for the National Science Foundation (NSF) Innovation Corps (I-Corps) Teams Program, an intensive 10-week program with 6 months of grant funding to identify and explore potential business opportunities for technologies developed with NSF support. I’ll never forget the rap
id-fire conference-call interview with the selection panel, akin to the grilling that contestants experience on the TV show Shark Tank, which tested our motivation, commitment, and aptitude. We passed the test, and I was thrilled and eager to dive into this new and relatively unfamiliar world of startup companies.

It seemed like we might be off to a rough start when we had our first conversations with real potential customers during the program’s 3-day kickoff workshop. To our disappointment, when we asked farmers to tell us about the challenges they faced, not one mentioned phosphorus. It seemed that we were trying to solve a problem that they didn’t care about! Apparently they hadn’t read the same high-profile research papers that I had read about the impending phosphorus crisis.

With one of my postdocs, Colin Bell, I began to explore the possibility of developing beneficial bacteria to help produce more food with less environmental impact. We decided to work on bacteria that solubilize phosphorus, making it more available to plants and thereby supporting their growth. Within just a few months, we had developed a combination of four bacteria that were 30 times better than the average soil bacteria community at making phosphorus available.

Colin and I spent the next 2 months exploring other potential markets for our beneficial bacteria by interviewing more potential customers, business partners, and anyone else we could find who could provide insight. I mastered networking on LinkedIn. Colin worked the phones and Skype tirelessly, stretching the number of interviews we could cram into a day by calling people in Hawaii. It was an emotional roller coaster, alternating between invigorating novel insights and deflating dead-ends. Each week, we had a virtual check-in with our instructors and the other I-Corps teams to share our insights and challenges. We were proud of our efforts, but it was always a bit nerve-wracking to hear the tough feedback from our instructors. It forced us to test our assumptions and helped to push us forward. And we did all this while continuing our academic research, giving us a taste of the exceptional effort it takes to be a successful entrepreneur.

By the end of the 10 weeks, we had identified a strong product-market fit by focusing on what our product does—increase yields—rather than how it works, and we began the hard work of creating and funding a company. After further development in a startup accelerator program, we successfully raised venture capital funding and launched our company, Growcentia, Inc., in March 2015. Less than 6 months later, we began producing and selling microbes based on those we had developed in our university laboratory. It has been incredibly rewarding to make something and get it into the hands of people that can use it. For me, it has been even better than the satisfaction of getting a paper published, a grant funded, or a student graduated.

Now, in addition to my academic lab and responsibilities, I am also the chairman of the company, meaning that I help guide our strategic vision, business development, and technology development roadmap. At first, I was more involved in many of the details—such as marketing, hiring, and production—and spent more time and money on lawyers than I ever imagined, but it was unsustainable. So we hired an experienced CEO, and Colin is now our full-time chief growth officer, which enabled me to settle into my current role and focus my energies on my academic career and my family.

Building bridges between business and academia

After helping to launch Growcentia, I wanted to continue finding new ways to increase the impact of my academic work. I also thought I could bring valuable insights from my I-Corps training and subsequent startup experience to my academic colleagues who also wanted to make a difference but weren’t accustomed to thinking about their work from a business perspective. In early 2015, I began working with a group of my fellow Colorado State University faculty members and led the development of the CSU Innovation Center for Sustainable Agriculture, which aims to increase crop productivity while decreasing environmental impacts of agriculture. The typical academic approach to solving this type of problem would be to build on our previous work to iteratively improve our basic knowledge, and then figure out how to communicate that knowledge to others who might use it to develop products or policies. Although this approach is the cornerstone of scientific progress, it often leads to creating solutions that are completely impractical or that address problems people don’t really care about, as Colin and I discovered in our early phosphorus-solubilizing project.

Instead, I convinced my colleagues that we needed to work backward, first identifying the biggest challenges that farmers and agricultural companies were facing in implementing sustainable agriculture and then designing projects to solve those problems. My colleagues were somewhat apprehensive about this new approach, but many were surprisingly open to it because they too recognized the need to try something different. Thus, we set out to interview farmers, companies, nongovernmental organizations , and other academics to understand how they were addressing sustainability, just as I had recently done for Growcentia.

One of our first “aha” moments came during a conversation with a major agricultural company. We met with a staff scientist the company had tasked with initiating a new program in soil health, but nobody at the company even knew how to define soil health, never mind how to improve it. Here was a problem we academics could help solve by translating fundamental scientific research into an actionable management program to improve soil health. We would never have identified this opportunity to apply our expertise if we hadn’t proactively engaged in customer interviews.

As we continued to learn about how companies were addressing sustainability and where they were struggling, we began to better understand what we could contribute, but we also found that we needed a way to organize our insights. So, at a 2-day retreat this past August, with help from a business consultant, I introduced our team to the “business model canvas” that I had learned through I-Corps. The canvas is a piece of butcher paper taped to a wall, divided into sections with labels like “value proposition” and “customer archetypes,” which we would cover with color-coded Post-its to brainstorm and organize our thoughts. My colleagues awkwardly tried out this new vocabulary never before uttered outside of business school, but over the course of the exercise they came to understand and appreciate the approach. Using the canvas forced us to thoughtfully articulate our vision, hypothesize the value we could bring to different stakeholders, and identify key unknowns. By the end of the retreat, we were energized as the path to realizing our vision became more clear. Since then, we’ve been able to move forward with much more focus, screening opportunities against our strategic plan and better allocating our limited time and resources toward reaching our long-term goals.

Over the last year, I’ve talked to many academics who want to direct their research toward solving big real-world problems but don’t know where to start. They often have novel insights and ambitious visions but lack a rigorous process. I have found that the startup world offers some valuable approaches for academics striving to increase the impact of their work, and over the next few years, I aim to help bring some of these approaches to academics through workshops and other media. In business terms, I want to develop a scalable model to help academics maximize their returns on society’s investment in our education, infrastructure, and research. I still have a lot to learn. I live in two different worlds right now, and the startup world is on a different space-time continuum than the academic world, but I think it has a lot to offer. And I believe I can help by bringing those worlds closer together.

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