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$2,500 and training workshop available for customer discovery through NSF I-Corps Site

Written by Debra Bouchegnies / January 29, 2019

Next application deadline: February 8, 2019

Manuel Nordhoff, a visiting research scientist at the UW, had a potentially game-changing idea for designers everywhere: a tool that would asses if a website’s design would appeal to its target audience. He also had a common problem — he needed to learn more about his customers, but he didn’t have the funding to do it. That’s when he teamed up with CoMotion mentor Mike Robinson and applied for the UW National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps’ (I-CORPS) grant program. This $2,500 grant is awarded to UW-affiliated startups based in science or technology to fund their deep dive into who their customers might be and what value their service could provide.

Magali Eaton, Innovation Training Program Manager

“This program helps teams move beyond the product or service they’re building and think about who they’re building it for, or how they’ll get it into the world,” says Magali Eaton, CoMotion’s Innovation Training Manager. “Many teams think they know who their customers are and what their product ecosystem looks like, but after going through this program they realize they’re much more appealing to a different market, or that there are all these stakeholders they’ll need to convince before they can reach their customers. That’s what I-CORPS is all about.”

In 2018, Nordhoff’s team used the funding to attend a tradeshow for marketing and design professionals in Annapolis, MD. They spoke with a number of people in these industries and attended meetups to learn more about their customers’ needs.

“When Mike and I teamed up for the I-CORPS national program, we were convinced that this would just be another confirmation of how amazing our idea was,” Nordhoff says. “In Annapolis, we soon figured we should forget about our solution and talk to people.”

The more people they talked to, the more they learned about who would use their product, and how they would use it.

“We thought we’d have to talk to people at a higher level [within companies],” he says, “but we learned that we needed to talk to people in the middle, between creatives and marketing managers.”

(L to R) Laura Dorsey, CoMotion Innovation Manager; Manuel Nordhoff, Visiting Research Scientist at UW; Mike Robinson, CoMotion Mentor

Once they discovered this, Nordhoff explains, they were able to figure out who their target audience was. For example, one person told him he had ten customers who would use the product tomorrow – another said he couldn’t imagine design firms not wanting this tool.

As a long-term entrepreneur, Mike feels taking the time to go through the I-CORPS program and talk to potential customers about their wants and needs is a crucial part of growing a company.

“I’ve been with other startups and some that I think have failed because they didn’t do this,” he says. “The lesson I’m taking away is that for every future startup, we’re going to go through this process.”

To learn more about I-CORPS or to apply for an I-CORPS grant, click here.