Maker Story: Customer Discovery

Dream it. Pitch it. Make it. That’s the idea which sold Health Make-a-Thon winner Maaz Iman on pitching his idea in the community-wide Health Make-a-Thon competition last April.

And when the competition awarded his group $10,000 in idea support for their 4-in-1 Vital Sign Reader project, Iman knew only some of the perks that came with their position. Of course, he was aware of the funding, the access to the various Health Maker Labs and the mentor partnership. He wasn’t aware, however, of how much more laid in wait for him and his group.

“I was really pleasantly surprised because what I came to see is (that), they’re going to teach us how to do this but also they’re going to make sure we have a sustainable idea. They’re not just going to let us go out with x amount of funding support, but they’re really giving us support through programs.”

One of these programs is the Illinois I-Corps Introduction to Customer Discovery, which consists of three sessions aimed at teaching the Health Make-a-Thon winners how to discover their market ecosystems and how to reach potential customers.

Harlee Sorkin, CEO of Intershunt Technologies and the National Science Foundation I-Corps instructor leading the sessions, wants the finalist groups to figure out what they need to build in order for the group’s intended users to actually purchase the product.

“The idea behind this is who better to tell you what to build than the person you ultimately want to pay for it,” Sorkin said. “We try to get beyond just the idea that they solve a problem with a technical solution, but they package that in a way that end users can ultimately purchase it.”

Many Health Make-a-Thon winners came into the first session on May 24 with minimal background in business or marketing. Some wondered if it was too early to be crafting business models of their project when they have yet to begin creating the prototype yet. Others assumed they already knew who their customers were since their project is aimed at benefitting the general public’s healthcare.

Finalist Gwendolyn Derk and Yusi Gong – the team behind the Smart Toilet project – soon came to realize that their target audience is narrower than they originally believed.

“We initially really thought the Smart Toilet would be directed to the public, and so these sessions have helped us to sort of realize who are our actual customers are and who we are supposed to target,” Derk said.

“They described (the Customer Discovery program) as this NSF program that helps you understand your market and I didn’t really know what any of those terms meant until actually coming here and doing the program,” Gong said. “It’s been really interesting thinking about a product from that perspective and not just the technology.”

During these sessions, Sorkin put the Health Make-a-Thon winners and their preconceived customer ecosystems under question, hoping to flesh out a more direct and focused business model. Sorkin said he often sees people from the technical or scientific fields not realizing how complex their ecosystems actually are and how much input others possess.

“Our hope for what these Health Make-a-Thon winners take away from the program is that they have a better appreciation for the fact that there’s more to seeing innovation find its way into practical use than simply coming up with a better mouse trap,” Sorkin said. “They actually have to consider the ways healthcare practitioners actually practice and the ways they use the tools they currently do.”

And seeing the true extensiveness of the Make-a-Thon competition first-hand has made Iman even more appreciative of the position he’s currently in.

“I think they really want us to succeed and I think the resources they’ve afforded us are really helping us move in that direction, which I am eternally grateful for.”