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Monday, August 11, 2008

Users becoming entrepreneurs

Last week I was at the HBS-MIT User and Open Innovation workshop. The conference is mostly (but not entirely) about user innovation in the footsteps of Eric von Hippel and his 1988 and 2005 books.

One of the major subthemes was on user innovators who become entrepreneurs. I’ve summarized the research I heard on the open innovation blog, but here wanted to comment on its applicability to facillitating engineering entrepreneurship.

One of the examples cited was Medtronic, the $14 billion/year firm founded by an electrical engineer and his brother-in-law to repair medical equipment. They were not user innovators, but to make their first pacemaker they involved doctors (i.e. pacemaker buyers, i.e. users) in the design.

This raises a question of how to best commercialize at the intersection of a highly technical user (in this case, MDs or scientists) and highly technical production processes (e.g. engineering of a human-wearable medical device). In this case, science is the customer — as with say instruments for radioastronomy — as opposed to being the input for the engineering (as with the WW II RadLab physicists enabling microwave radar).

So what if you have a product category that requires a combination of engineering competencies with deep knowledge of science, which belongs on the founding team? Are the engineers — who talk to doctors — more likely to succeed? Or does the advantage lie with a doctor-founder who hires engineers? The first is an example of a lead-user approach, while the second is user entrepreneurship.

My hunch (not immediately provable) is that the most important factor is none of the above. Instead, I suspect the driving force will be the same as with any other tech startup: how much business knowledge does the technical founder have — or, lacking such knowledge, how much is the founder willing to defer/listen to those with such knowledge?

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