Development agency learns fast, willing to experiment in delivering right program to investees
Rigorous approach taken to identify right entrepreneurs to commercialize university research
HOW about this for impact? “We went from asking, ‘who is your market’ and hearing ‘everyone who uses soap.’ By the time we finished the program, the entrepreneurs knew exactly which soap user they were going after, who influences them, how to package it and the pricing mechanism,” said Dr V. Chandrasekar.
Chandrasekar -- Clinical Professor of Entrepreneurship, executive advisor, Indu Center for Real Estate and Infrastructure, Indian School of Business – was one of two invited international facilitators at the inaugural boot camp that the Malaysian Technology Development Corporation (MTDC) held for its Symbiosis entrepreneurs.
The other was Brant Cooper, author of The Entrepreneurs Guide to Customer Development. Symbiosis is graduate entrepreneurship program initiated by MTDC in its effort to promote the commercialization of public-funded research and development (R&D).
According to Professor Zainul Fadziruddin Zainuddin (pic), director of MTDC’s Business Advisory Division, the average Malaysian entrepreneur is not really tech-savvy and is typically not really keen to take on something new.
“But this program helps not only create entrepreneurs but also aims to commercialize university R&D,” he said.
Lest readers think this program is about throwing together some individuals with university-based research and hoping for a miracle, a lot of effort went into picking the right research coming out from universities and then matching this to the right individuals, in the hope they would be able to innovate and create a market-ready product.
In this sense, Zainul is uniquely positioned to shed some light on the selection process as he was with Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) prior to joining MTDC -- USM was a partner for Symbiosis, together with the Northern Corridor Implementation Authority.
Zainul, who was involved in an innovation initiative at USM at the time, helped identify up to 25 products that USM researchers had come up with.
MTDC then did an analysis to pick what it felt were the 10 best products and Zainul engaged with the principal researchers concerned to ensure they were keen for their products to be commercialized.
“This cooperation of the researcher is very important to the ultimate success of the product being commercialized as further work may be required from the researcher,” he said.
While this sifting out process was going on, in parallel, USM was trying to identify the right entrepreneurs to be matched with the products. It was assumed that its own crop of Master’s level graduates would be interested, but the response was very poor.
“We then opened it up to northern region graduates and a BiotechCorp program called BEST (Biotechnology Entrepreneurship Special Training), and ended up having over 800 applicants,” said Zainul.
“This was whittled down to 40 individuals who then went through another round of training where 10 were picked to be the main entrepreneurs who would lead the efforts to commercialize the 10 products from USM. Twenty more of this final 40 were chosen to be the partners for the top 10.”
Zainul said that the entire process took four phases spread over seven to eight months. It also involved the final 10 entrepreneurs selected having to socialize with the researchers to then pick those who seemed to get along the best.
It may not be the most precise way of matching entrepreneur to product, but Zainul said he has seen enough industry-academic deals go sour because of the lack of chemistry between the two parties.
“There are a lot of bells and whistles that need to be added to the invention before it is market-ready, and for this there really needs to be strong interaction, or call it chemistry, between entrepreneur and inventor,” he added.
The other reason for the stringent process in choosing the entrepreneurs is because MTDC will then fund the companies and incubate them for 24 months at any one of its Technology Centers where further assistance will be provided in making sure commercialization takes place.
Consider the boot camp an accelerator to ensure higher success rates for commercialization. The first boot camp was held in June with 80 participants from various MTDC grant programs.
“But when reviewing the camp we felt that is was too diverse a group and we could not get to the meat of their problems,” said Zainul.
What arose out of the learnings from this first camp was the September boot camp with only Symbiosis startups. This camp totalled 74 entrepreneurs (two per company) who went through the program in three cycles, with smaller groups per cycle who enjoyed more hands-on help.
Both the facilitators Cooper and Chandrasekar, who were part of the June camp too, found themselves impressed with the manner in which MTDC took the lessons from the first boot camp and came out with a stronger program three months later.
“I teach lean start-ups about experimenting about learning, and here you have MTDC experimenting by figuring out what worked then and what did not and three months later, coming out with a different format,” said Cooper.
While in the first camp there was no time to drill into the business issues entrepreneurs faced, this time they were very focused on what the entrepreneurs needed -- which was to refine their business models and identify the market segments best suited for their products.
The two-day segments were about finding a market, identifying the best segment for their products and coming up with the best model and best value proposition for it.
“We lectured but they refined their business models and market segments and then presented to us,” said Chandrasekar.
Cooper added: “We are teaching them how to think through the solutions themselves because we don’t have the domain expertise to do so.”
To both of them, this experimentation and learning that MTDC is carrying out via its boot camps is what will ensure the program’s success. Because thinking that one understands how to create an ecosystem and to commercialize and executing on that belief is what has caused similar programs to fail all over the world, they claimed.