Monday, December 7, 2015

Semester Wrap Up

Hi everyone, it’s Maggie again.  Our TI:GER class of 2016 just finished our third semester and I thought I’d share some of the highlights.

One of the best things about this semester, in my opinion, was all the help we received in honing our pitch, clarifying our slide decks, and learning how to be better presenters all around.  For one class, we had a “Pitch Camp.”  Each team presented a three minute pitch and then was assigned a coach who worked with your team one-on-one to improve. 

The week after that we gave a practice 15 minute presentation to our business and law mentors in preparation for our final presentation in front of the TI:GER Advisory Board.  I’ve written about this in the past, but one of my favorite parts about TI:GER is the exposure you get to real world entrepreneurs and patent attorneys.

It’s been a great semester all around with some really good guest lecturers from the startup community and the angel investing and venture capital world.  Moving forward, some teams will continue to work on their TI:GER PhD project, some will choose to work with an ATDC start-up company, and some will choose to take a different class next semester.  A real positive for TI:GER which I hadn’t realized before now is that the program is very flexible and individualized to each student.

I look forward to seeing what next semester brings!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

A Look Back at Team Formation

(Left: Akshay Ravi; Right: Ajaay Ravi)
On a warm Monday evening in August, I and my brother Ajaay were rushing to our TI:GER class. We were hardly a week into the MBA program at Scheller and were just getting to know our classmates. We entered our TI:GER class discussing how we had to network with a new set of classmates all over again. It was a little intimidating at first talking with all the PhD and JD students with the idea of forming teams to potentially start a company.  Slowly and steadily, we got an opportunity to talk to everyone and get to know one another.

One day during a casual hallway conversation at the TI:GER lab, Margi was asking us about the team formation was coming along and told us in a lighter vein – “I hope the brothers don’t end up together on the same team.” Ajaay told her that we had been consciously avoiding doing so from day 1 at Scheller and were confident that it would be the same for TI:GER as well.

Having grown up together and shared a room for 20 years, we knew each other very well to the extent where we could accurately predict what the other is thinking. Hence we thought in order to expand our repertoire we need to team up with a different set of people as that would benefit both of us going forward. Putting aside all other factors, we just started to network with all our classmates in the hope of becoming friends. We felt that there was no point in forming a team and a company if we cannot gel together as friends in the first place. After TI:GER class one Monday we were talking to one of the JD students, Lorrin Stone, who had a similar mindset as ours. We ended up having a long chat outside the GaTech hotel parking garage and felt very comfortable interacting outside class.

As time progressed and we got closer to the deadline to form our teams, one of the teams had already formed in our class and panic struck. We sat down and began to critically evaluate the projects we were interested in and found out that both of us had listed a particular project as our first choice given how well it aligned with our backgrounds. So contrary to what we were trying very hard to avoid, we eventually ended up in the same team. Our PhD teammate Matt had already decided on a JD student Forrest and we needed one more teammate. We recommended Lorrin’s name and our Team Cool was formed. We connected very quickly as a team and almost every conversation we had involved cars, engines, guns, thermal interface materials, assignments, jokes, basketball and food. And a few ideas every now and then about commercializing the technology as well.

For us, it was an amazing experience interacting with Lorrin and Forrest as both of us were Electrical Engineers and now MBA students. We found out that Lorrin had a Finance background and Forrest already had experience running his own company and both of our lawyers understood business better than us. The avenues to learn were plenty and the chances of going wrong very marginal, given the experience in our team. Each of us brought different perspectives to the table and it was interesting to find out how well we complemented each other. All of us understood the nuances of Matt’s technology and started contributing to the brainstorming sessions fairly quickly. Yes, being lawyers Lorrin and Forrest do articulate a lot better. The other wonderful aspect of our team is the openness. Everybody is open to suggestion, bring about ideas to do things differently and debate potential solutions constructively. Matt is also very patient in explaining super scientific concepts that goes way above our heads. He deconstructs concepts into simple language so that it is easy for all of us to understand.

We also set up a regular time to meet every week and make it a point to always meet at different places across the school / city. This way we get to soak in different sights, enjoy different types of cuisines, and have refreshing conversations in new surroundings.

Until now, we have never felt that we are an interdisciplinary or multicultural team. We always think that we are a bunch of awesome people doing something cool. One important thing you learn apart from commercialization in TI:GER is friendship. This is definitely the start of a wonderful relationship for us going forward!

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Engineering Ph.D. That Says: What’s In A Pitch?

Explaining engineering research to a layman is a lot like using Auto-Tune. Yes I said Auto-Tune! The same thing that T-Pain, Kanye West, and secretly every pop band in the world uses to put their voice at the correct pitch. It is a great piece of software that makes anyone a great singer.

Now imagine someone puts headphones on you, and asks you to sing into a microphone Journey’s hit-single “Don’t Stop Believing” at karaoke. In the headphones all that you hear is your beautifully Auto-Tune-corrected voice flowing on top of the music. You are auto-magically singing on key and every single note hits perfectly.

Guess what everyone next to you hears? Pure unadulterated: awfulness.

You see, as Ph.D. students, we have to write a lot of papers. Unknowingly, writing technical papers all the time can condition us to speak like we write. I find this is a major flaw that many of us Ph.D. students make when transitioning to the marketplace. When we speak about our work, our logic and technical expertise is secretly auto-correcting our speech so that our logical understanding is satisfied to be in perfect “technical-pitch.” But the market doesn’t care about technical correctness!

Reflecting over my first year in TI:GER, most of my team’s meetings discussed more about what the technology is, rather than what to do with it.  Working together and getting feedback from my wife (Praise the LORD I live with a GT MBA’15!), helped tremendously to work out what to say and how to say it. After a year, we finally realized how to communicate what it is our technology does, and why it is awesome. It took many iterations of speaking about the technology in a sense that everyone can grasp, and it paid off with a win at the TI:GER Alumni Student Pitch Competition this past Fall 2015 (thank you TI:GERs for your vote!).  

My advice to other engineers exposing themselves to the marketplace is to change the key you sing in. Get out of paper mode, and talk to non-technical professionals about what your research is. Start to develop your ear to communicate effectively to the marketplace, and you too could deliver the perfect pitch.

Billy Kihei, All glory to God for the success you just read about!

You can track Billy’s Thesis Writing process at:

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Elusive Product Market Fit

Hi everyone, I'm Brett, a first year TI:GER MBA student.  My group PaniPure is working on a new method of desalination.  Below are some thoughts on how to find your target market…

If you were to draw the process of starting with a technological advance and turning it into something actually useful, it would appear as a 1st grade scribble - ignoring the certainty of lines constraining a form.

And so it went as my PaniPure TI:GER group sought a clear product market fit. The technology itself is a water treatment method which strips salt and other chemicals from water, potentially pulling salt and other particles from an impure medium. What was immediately evident was the apparent relevance of the technology - water security is a constant ally of journalists in search of a topic.

The group began in a similar vein, seeking to apply the tech to poverty stricken regions of the world to provide clean drinking water. This was promising at first, but proved a dead end after limitations of the technology were seen in the application. The technology could not remove bacteria from water - an essential characteristic of safe drinking water.

The group next turned to a more prosaic need - in home water softening. This appeared promising initially, as the equipment to power such systems was thought to be highly complex and expensive. This suspicion was proven incorrect rapidly with simple online searches that revealed the superior cost structure and simplicity of existing approaches.

These two avenues helped to define the space within which the PaniPure technology might be of use - where significant infrastructure already exists and where removing impurities, but not bacteria, are both critical. This led my group to consider the complex and massive agricultural irrigation industry.

This was a good bet - water prices were known to be high due to limited supply. The group had little experience with the market and first worked on understanding how farms currently obtained irrigation water. This began by calling the agricultural state extension services - a government agency in constant contact with farmers and their needs. This connection led to many more and helped paint a picture of the irrigation water industry. With this knowledge, those responsible for procuring water were contacted next, primarily farms and water management agencies. When these contacts began sending the team data and test water, it was clear that PaniPure had found a connection with end users.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The TI:GER Network

Hi guys, I'm Maggie.  I'm a first year Georgia Tech MBA candidate and this is my second semester with the TI:GER program.  My group is working on a medical device that can treat diabetes.  Since one of the best parts of the TI:GER program is its large network, I thought I'd tell you a little bit about our mentors...

Thanks for reading!

Regarding our mentors, I’ll quote the indubitably wise Tony the Tiger here: they’re grrrrrrrrrrreat!

Let me back up for a moment.  For those of you who don’t know, each TI:GER team gets assigned a law mentor and a business mentor.  Below I try to give a highlight reel of our meetings.

Our law mentor is a former TI:GER Emory Law alum – he graduated from the program four years ago.  In our first meeting, he had all the documents we’d sent over bounded and tabbed.  He’d also brought another member of his firm to help out.  They blew me away – so energetic, so willing to help, so knowledgeable.  Both have been a huge asset to our team as we struggle to understand the current patent landscape.  Last week our group went to one of the mentor’s home for pizza and we got to know each other outside of TI:GER.

Our business mentor has been with the TI:GER program for about 5 years.  A former TI:GER student now works at his start-up company.  Our team had been struggling with this one issue about why competitors enter a specific market, and our mentor was able to give us an answer within 2 minutes of starting our meeting.  I also really liked his comment “I’d be happy to open my network to you.”  We need to speak with endocrinologists (docs that treat people with diabetes) and our mentor immediately knew who we could get in touch with to get an introduction to those doctors.  That kind of knowledge and networking is truly invaluable to our team.

The TI:GER mentors far exceed my expectations.  I’m so impressed that these successful professionals really care about our project and want to help any way they can.  So far this has been one of my favorite aspects of the TI:GER program.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Get Out of the Building: Customer Discovery

Hi, I'm Jonathan.  I'm a first year TI:GER MBA student and my team is working on a new way to sort stem cells.  I thought I'd tell you a little bit about our customer discovery process...

Everyone wants our technology! Our technology is perfect! Show me the money!

Those are the mantras that every entrepreneur wants to believe. The blood, sweat, and tears that went into developing a technology should justify its widespread appeal and commercializability. Sometimes this is the case, but usually not. Kevin Costner certainly led us astray when he uttered those now famous words “build it and they will come.”

If I have learned anything from being in the TI:GER program, it’s the fact that you have to get out of the building and talk to people. The other option is to create beautiful business plans, estimate market growth, and decide which island you will buying. The problem with that approach is that as soon as you show your plan to a real entrepreneur or potential investor, the first question you will get is “how do you know?” You will not be able to respond in a convincing manner. Customer interviews are essential to understanding your technology’s appeal to consumers (not guaranteed) and the degree to which it addresses a pain point (may be not at all). The goal is to gather as much data as possible from the people who will buy your product or service to justify moving forward – affording you the insight you will need to tweak your product, pivot, or go back to the drawing board.

This process is tough. It takes a dedicated team to ask the right questions and deal with answers that may run contrary to original expectations. There will be ups and downs, but in the end you will be grateful for the experience because you will identify a path forward (even if its not the one you set out on originally). Trust me – my TI:GER team is learning this in real time.

The CEO at my previous company was fond of Colin Powell and often shared the following quotation with clients (from his book It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership):

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is the slogan of the complacent, the arrogant or the scared. It's an excuse for inaction, a call to non-arms. It's a mind-set that assumes (or hopes) that today's realities will continue tomorrow in a tidy, linear and predictable fashion. Pure fantasy. In this sort of culture, you won't find people who pro-actively take steps to solve problems as they emerge. Here's a little tip: don't invest in these companies.”

If you don’t seek out new information from customers you will become complacent and severely limit your market upside. Talk to people, get their insights, and solve the problems that customers want solved. Don’t take my word for it, listen to the general.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Hello everyone,

We’ve given TI:GER Tales a new twist.  Instead of a single student’s perspective, the blog will now incorporate thoughts from students working on a variety of teams.  We hope you find the posts helpful and gain some helpful insights into what it’s like to be in the TI:GER program.  Enjoy!