Innovator Uses Lean Startup to Determine Product-Market Fit

A growing number of innovators are using the Lean Startup approach to more efficiently bring technologies to market. Consultants for the Center for Technology Commercialization (CTC) use Lean Startup methods with their clients to streamline the startup process and determine the commercialization viability of  complex technologies, such as the Aerogel insulation technology, a 100% renewable insulation alternative, developed by Madison-based Aeropak. This customer feedback-based approach enables innovators like Aeropak to determine product-market fit early in the process and avoid investing resources on ideas that do not match the needs of potential customers.

Aeropak team lead Dr. Alireza Javadi learned the Lean Startup approach as a 2013 UW-Madison participant in the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps (iCorps) program. When launching a business around a technology such as Aeropak’s platform technology, it is important to have guidance from a mentor skilled in Lean Startup principles and methods. CTC Director Cheryl Vickroy served as mentor on the iCorp Aeropak team along with Javadi and principal investigator Dr. Sarah Gong. 

“It’s not easy to find the right contacts nor to ask the right questions leading to an objective assessment of customer needs”, says Vickroy, who has been using Voice of the Customer Translation and other related techniques since 2000. The mentor can be more objective about the input and guide a team to useful contacts. 

As part of the Lean Startup effort, Javadi assessed the team’s business model and walked through the customer-development process to determine not just the commercialization likelihood of his technology, but also the needs of several industries, all of whom had different requirements. 

Since Aeropak’s platform technology had the potential to serve multiple markets, Javadi discovered and assessed more than a dozen industries including residential and commercial construction; Aerospace; clothing; and large and small appliance manufacturers.

Through a series of interviews with representatives from each of the targeted industries, team Aeropak evaluated the requirements unique to each industry and ultimately found the best fit for the Aerogel technology in the commercial construction industry with builders interested in green construction.

Following the iCorps program, the Aeropak team returned to the lab to assess whether or not they could meet the technical requirements of these potential customers. Since he was hired by industry, Javadi has not developed the Aerogel technology further at this time. But he considers the Lean Startup skills he learned to be invaluable. He adds, “I still use the knowledge I gained through iCorps on a daily basis to ensure that I’m considering the needs and requirements of the customer.”