Johns Hopkins I-Corps Delivering Better Tech Through Customer Discovery
Dr. Dan Stoianovici is a professor of urology, mechanical engineering, neurosurgery and oncology at The Johns Hopkins University. He holds 15 issued patents, has 13 licensed patents, and in his 20-plus-year career, he has co-authored nearly 1,000 publications, many of which earned awards. He is an expert in the field of medical robotics and built his robotics laboratory at the Brady Urological Institute.
One could understand why he would question the return on investment he would receive from Johns Hopkins University’s I-Corps program. The four-week workshop is designed to help researchers better understand their target market for innovative new products and services by engaging directly with potential customers. Additionally, it provides funding of up to $2,880 to support customer discovery work or prototype development. Despite his initial skepticism, Stoianovici found the program time well spent.
“Once you work in the same field for many many years, you tend to believe you know what the requirements are and what customers would like to have,” Stoianovici says. “In general, it’s true because you work on and read about it every day.”
Stoianovici is currently developing a device that combines ultrasound and robotics not only to improve prostate biopsies but also to make them less expensive and more accessible. The current preferred method for conducting prostate biopsy involves ultrasound and MRI, but that is cost-prohibitive for many patients.
After receiving an $115,000 award from TEDCO’s Maryland Innovation Initiative (MII), which is designed to promote the commercialization of research in select Maryland universities, Stoianovici applied to the Johns Hopkins I-Corps program to gain a clearer understanding of the business of commercializing his innovation.
Stoianovici attended the university’s opening I-Corps workshop which provided an overview of customer discovery and lessons on better communication. From there, he spent the four weeks of the program interviewing customers, primarily medical device manufacturers, physicians and patients, and meeting weekly with an adviser who would provide feedback on his progress and advice for future interviews. All told Stoianovici has interviewed more than 30 customers and anticipates doing even more because the experience has proven so valuable.
“Initially, you don’t really know how to do the customer interviews, but then step after step you start to like it and understand it,” he says. Stoianovici recalled Bob Storey, one of the I-Corps instructors, explaining that customer interviews could become addictive and said that’s what he experienced.
Though Stoianovici occasionally had differences of professional opinion with the people he interviewed, the feedback still proved valuable.
“In talking with various people, I found there were still things that people saw in different ways and that is very important because they are the customers,” says Stoianovici. “I need to ensure I prepare the product so that it offers value to them as well.”
Some of the customer insights Stoianovici received will inform the actual design and versatility of the robotic device, which he aims to have a prototype of by mid-summer. For example, one of the interviews revealed that the customer wanted the functionality of the robot to include focal ablation therapies, a technique that destroys small tumors in the prostate but leaves the remaining gland intact and preserves much of the healthy tissue.
“Because of that feedback, we’re actually thinking about how we can design the probe for multiple applications beyond biopsy,” Stoianovici says.
Megan Wahler, the program manager of FastForward, says that participating in I-Corps will benefit any inventor and ensures that any work poured into the program will lead to a greater understanding of the solutions necessary to address people’s problems. She especially encourages inventors in the very early stages of development to participate.
“From an academic technology development standpoint, it’s imperative that you gain an understanding of your customers’ needs early on so you design technology that’s truly solving their problems,” says Wahler, who leads the university’s I-Corps program with Bob Storey, the managing director of the Maryland branch of VIC Technology Venture Development and Elizabeth Good Mazhari, President of Transition Health Ventures. “If your technology isn’t ready for prime time, this is a great way to vet the potential market viability because you’re not supposed to talk about your tech.”
Instead, as Stoianovici has learned, I-Corps encourages inventors to listen to their target audience’s biggest challenges.
“Previously, I would just show them what I have and talk about how fantastic my gadgets are,” Stoianovici says. “What you should do is talk to them, ask for their opinions and try to conduct your dialogue so that it gets closer and closer to what you are working on. If you start hearing what you want to hear, you probably have a customer.”
Now that he has completed the Johns Hopkins I-Corps program, Stoianovici is considering applying to the National Science Foundation’s version. This rigorous program has a curriculum that provides best practices for working with partners, building a business strategy and, of course, additional customer discovery and funding.
“I recommend other people in the academic world to go ahead and pursue the I-Corps program because it is instructive, and the lessons you’re taking from the customers can help you refine the work you’re doing in research,” Stoianovici says.
The next Johns Hopkins University I-Corps program will start in September and a call for applications will go out in August. If you have questions about the program, click here or contact Megan Wahler (firstname.lastname@example.org).