What’s not to love about a biomedical device that disperses stem cell clumps in bioreactors? According to big pharma, quite a bit. E-Team grantee and ASPIRE participant, Michael Moore, and his then team, Viastem, had their hearts racing over what they thought was a groundbreaking innovation that would increase stem cell yields. However, pharmaceutical companies gave the inventors the cold shoulder; they were looking for anything but more stem cells. The team had to kiss their idea goodbye.
For E-Team grantee and ASPIRE participant, Anton Schuster of Agromo (formerly Rambuta), customers were swooning over the team’s idea: a remote sensing device that could capture data farmers need to properly care for crops. However, some key players in agriculture cooled off to their invention when the handmade prototype didn’t deliver the expected results. The team was heartbroken.
According to Dr. Lawrence Neeley, Associate Professor of Design and Entrepreneurship at Olin College of Engineering and OPEN presenter, STEM students often take it to heart when potential customers reject their ideas—when instead they should take that valuable information back to the lab. “Student inventors are inherently passionate about their technology, and that’s a good thing. Excitement is a great starting point for problem solving, but they need to balance passion with real-life data to ensure their invention actually addresses customer needs.”
In other words, startups need to embrace tough love when developing an invention.
Feedback is Data, Not an Arrow to the Heart
It’s easy to get attached to an invention. It’s “your baby.” However, being too lovestruck with your technology can prevent you from absorbing vital feedback from customers, professors, mentors, even teammates. When working with student inventors, Neeley notes that the idea of a tech reality check triggers intense feelings: fear your idea will be rejected, or anger that critics “just don’t get you”.
In the beginning, Schuster and his team were too smitten with their innovation to challenge assumptions, something feedback can help with. “We fell in love with our prototype after only a few conversations with farmers, mixed with many of our own ideas of what we thought customers needed,” he said.
“Feedback is learning,” said Neeley. “While you might view it as an arrow to the heart, use the information to build a valuable solution that customers can’t live without.”
Embrace Tough Love
While it’s difficult to not take criticism personally, especially when you’ve poured your heart and soul into your invention, Neeley encourages students to embrace feedback as a “necessary pain that delivers value.” He says, “Sure, feedback can hurt, but understand that you can’t improve your invention without learning what’s wrong with it. Feedback is a mechanism for growth.”
For Moore, he’s learned to blend humility with healthy doses of tough love. “Listening to feedback from a humble place makes it easier to filter the information I need to better my product,” he said. “Even though I’m in love with the invention, that doesn’t mean I’m right.”
Schuster has adopted an “it’s me, not you” approach to soliciting feedback. “It was tough to hear people dissect your invention. We were too close to the idea,” he said. “But the candid feedback showed us where we needed to move towards to create a commercially viable solution. Now we take a step back when people tell us what they think of our idea. That helps us digest the information while maintaining healthy relationships with people who can provide valuable input.”
When Neeley sees students running for a box of tissues after receiving harsh criticism, he encourages them to chase after even more tough love. “Seeking input on your invention should be your full-time job,” he said. “Find every opportunity to tap into expertise that exceeds yours.”
Fall Head Over Heels with Solving a Problem, Not Your Invention
Being in love with solving a problem can put you in the right mindset to listen to feedback about your technology. In our report, Innovator Insights: Illuminating the Path for Tomorrow’s Inventors, Donna Brezinski, founder of Little Sparrows Technologies and Xcelerator participant, noted that it’s crucial for early-stage innovators to fall—and stay—in love with solving a problem, not their invention. “To me, the mission isn’t the physical product. The mission is the impact that innovation can have on a group of people. I’m not motivated by my product. I’m motivated to improve neonatal care all over the world.”
Neeley wholeheartedly agrees. “For many student innovators, there’s a tendency to love your invention more than finding a real solution to a problem,” he says. “It’s best to find problems you’re passionate about addressing before getting married to your idea or technology.”
Moore notes that it’s common for research-centric students to have mismatched innovations to real problems. “A lot of research that takes place in the lab isn’t always driven by market needs,” he notes. “Our technology was developed in isolation. It’s no surprise that it didn’t receive much love in the outside world.”
Reaching Happily Ever After
For Moore and Schuster, tough love helped them get closer to a “happily ever after” state. Each team has pivoted their technology and business model to better address market demands. Moore and his new company, Pathware, are creating hardware and software to simplify digital pathology workflows and reduce the rate of repeat procedures. Schuster and Agromo are focused on data collection and analysis to provide growers with early detection warnings for potential pests and disease, which will help reduce pesticide application.
How can you turn a tricky relationship with your technology into a true love story? Neeley says, “Use your inherent experimental perspective as a scientist. Gather and incorporate insights from feedback to iterate and pivot.”