A hardware accelerator? I like the sound of that!

 There’s a lot going on in the innovation space in Australia, and a real gem is the Accelerator program run by bluebox out of the Queensland University of Technology.

The Accelerator program takes applicants from QUT students and alumni and puts them through an intensive product and business development program over the semester break, which is Australia is largely late November through to the end of February. This year’s teams were all hardware orientated (although many had software as well), which introduces a range of challenges that don’t appear in pure software or business model innovations. However, it plays to one of QUT’s strengths which is technology including manufactured technologies.

There are a couple of really good things that QUT has done with this program, which is getting better every time they run it (this being the second year). Some of those things include;

  • The University increasingly backs the Accelerator, and this year gave it a great space made up of three rooms – a maker space (which a number of 3D printers, Arduino kits etc), a workspace and a meetup space,
  • A stream of highly experienced subject matter experts which come in to educate the teams, with presenters covering topics ranging from IP protection to sales & marketing and pitch coaching,
  • Financial support which enables teams to outsource tasks where they don’t have a skillset (e.g. patent applications),
  • A structured program, which takes them from their concept to a defined product with strong IP protection, ending in a demo day where they showcase their innovations,
  • Post program support for the teams as they ‘go it alone’.

Two other things that make the program really strong are the quality of ideas that they get into the program, and the quality of the people that run it. Brent Watts, bluebox’s Director, Innovation and Engagement takes a really hands on approach to the program and does a fantastic job of driving the teams to flesh out their ideas, both the product and the business model. 
I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in this program as Entrepreneur in Residence and it’s been a fantastic experience. As always, there’s heaps to be learned from being part of this type of program, and here’s what I’ve learned this year;

  • Early career professionals that take enter the program on have real passion, drive and commitment to what they’re doing. They really take some risks and commit to the program, and without fail they deliver on their commitments – an incredibly valuable character trait!
  • Most teams start these programs with very little business experience, but with the right guidance and mentoring, they can get up to speed really quickly.
  • There’s a number of ways to navigate the startup process and in this case, strong oversight and good structure guide the teams through to successful outcomes.
  • Startup teams consume a crap load of coffee. Even with some non-coffee drinkers the 7 teams went through over 2,500 coffee pods in 12 weeks!

This is my first real engagement with QUT and I have to say that their drive to produce good hardware startups is really impressive. If you ever get a chance to see what they’re doing with the Accelerator and their Innovation Challenge I highly recommend you take the chance. Given their approach to continuous improvement of the Accelerator, next year’s program will be even better.

I can’t wait to see what they produce!

Why I’d have a researcher on my startup team..!

 As you’ll probably know if you’ve hit this blog, the idea of the ‘minimum viable product’ is a key part of the popular lean startup approach to developing products these days. For clarity though, the idea is that you develop a product with the minimum possible set of features and test that with potential customers. You do this because in reality you can only really guess at what they might like, and why bother building features that they might not pay for?

Building an ‘MVP’ isn’t always as easy as it sounds though. When you’re developing a new idea, it can be hard to resist the siren call of more features. It might be that you think you only get one shot at it, so why put a ‘half baked’ product into the market? In my case (with WineMinder), we didn’t really have the money to go around the block twice, so it was hard to pare things back. Still, things crept in, as they often do. You also need to be brave to put an MVP out there. It’ll be under developed compared to future versions, and it might not reflect your vision of what the product could/should be. So summing up the courage to do something less is a real challenge. Might sound strange, but it’s true!Which brings me to something point that I’ll tie back to the MVP in a moment.
There is a tendency to knock universities in Australia when it comes to innovation, including the type of graduates they produce. It’s pretty easy to throw stones at them, because universities haven’t really evolved to commercialise ‘stuff’; they have evolved to do research, and to teach. So saying they are terrible at developing ideas and people that can be turned into cash (which is what a lot of innovation is really about in the end, right?) is kind of like saying that Australians are bad at winter sports. It’s just the nature of the thing.
In any case, in light of those sorts of comments, I was surprised recently when I was dealing with a researcher who had created a device designed to support a research project. The ‘device’ is only a small step away from being a product with commercial value, but that’s not what they designed it for and they really don’t have the skills to turn it into a product (and if they did, they wouldn’t be researchers). And in talking to them, these were some of the things that came out;

  • They designed and built the project not with ideal parts, but with what they could lay their hands on, and they had the skills to combine into a functional device
  • They developed the device using a whole stack of hypotheses about how it might be used; their driving goal was to investigate those hypotheses and find out which were true and which were not (which is what researchers do!
  • They were keen to test the product with their target audience, to find out what features they’d use and how they’d use them; not because it would make the product more appealing, but because it would answer the questions (hypotheses) they had

Now that really sounds like an MVP to me. Simple, basic features designed to test assumptions, with a plan to test their assumptions and improve the device.

So I think I’d like to have a researcher or two on my startup team. They come armed to identify problems and strong frameworks to investigate them. And they tend to have a strong sense of curiosity which is a real asset when developing an MVP.

So I’m not as down on universities as some. I think they’re a great source of ideas, the key is knowing how to work with them. That’s not always straight forward, unfortunately, but that’s a subject for another time! But if they can create good MVPs that are a step away from being a useful product, then it’s definely worth working with them!