Learning from Customers Key to Obtaining Funding for Technology Innovator

Lean Startup training provided through the National Science Foundation (NSF) Innovation Corps (iCorps) program helped 2012 UW-Madison iCorps participant Dr. Atif Hashmi, co-founder of Madison-based Thalchemy Corporation, to secure a $150,000 NSF Phase I Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) award to advance the development of his technology. According to Dr. Babu DasGupta, Program Director of the iCorps at the NSF, companies that participate in iCorps triple their potential for successful SBIR/STTR funding to over 60%.

That dramatic increase in funding potential comes from the value provided by learning from customers early in the process.  Thalchemy’s technology works in unison with a smart device processor and enables the device to continuously monitor its environment to identify certain events of interests. Using a Lean Startup tool known as customer validation, Hashmi learned about the needs of nearly 70 companies, including industry leaders such as Google, Nokia and AMD.  Firms like these seek to license Thalchemy’s technology to include in their smart devices in order to support new end-use applications.

 “The feedback that we got from potential customers helped us understand the market needs and determine the design of a minimum viable product that would be attractive for our customers to evaluate,” says Hashmi.  Positive responses from potential customers encouraged Hashmi and Thalchemy’s co-founders Professor Mikko Lipasti (UW-Madison) and Dr. Andrew Nere to move forward with the development of their technology.

For help in pursuing NSF SBIR Phase I funding, the Thalchemy team contacted the Center for Technology Commercialization (CTC). A CTC micro-grant helped them hire a Service Provider to assist with the SBIR proposal. CTC Consultant David Linz also assisted the team. “Dave helped us to fine tune our SBIR proposal, and he also had a number of engaging conversations with us to structure our business development,” says Hashmi. 

The Center uses the Lean Startup methodology taught at iCorps with as many of its clients as are interested in benefitting from the process.  “Thalchemy is a great example of the benefit of iCorps and Lean Startup methods to improve success rates for SBIR proposals,” says Linz. “It’s also a good example of how CTC can help high-tech people with high-tech ideas actually launch a business and get it funded.” Linz is again assisting the Thalchemy team with its NSF Phase II grant application, due January 31, 2014. 

Thalchemy’s technology, inspired by the way the human brain works, involves software and hardware that control "always on" sensors in smart phones and other battery-operated smart devices while using ultralow power. “At Thalchemy we believe that the future of consumer electronics is devices that will always be on. These ever-vigilant devices will be able to react to any changes in their surroundings, by keeping their sensors on all the time, the same way the human brain does,” says Hashmi. Unlike the human brain, existing smart devices do not use their sensing capability to its fullest potential. “Our technology will enable smart devices to actually use 100% of their brain by keeping their sensors on all the time,” explains Hashmi. “So that they can pick out certain events of interests including gesture or spoken commands, specific movements and motions, and any abnormalities in the vital signs to trigger a pre-specified reaction. The reaction to an event could be to turn your device off, or to inform the physician about an abnormality in your heart beat, or to automatically call 911 to notify them of an accident.”   

The iCorps program enabled the Thalchemy team to identify potential customers and their needs very specifically. “Our main customers are those companies who are developing smart devices, and for them we are planning to have our product ready starting next year,” says Hashmi.




Read more about Wisconsin NSF iCorps teams and Aeropak (Coming soon)