From Participant to Mentor: Dr. Bell's I-Corps Journey
Updated: Feb 24
In this interview, Dr.Charleson Bell discusses his experience applying for and participating in the NSF I-Corps Teams Program. During I-Corps, he conducted customer research to identify a market for the commercialization of his team’s technology that connects rapid tests to the mobile medicine ecosystem. Dr.Charleson Bell is a parallel innovator, engineer, and entrepreneur who is currently the program advisor at Vanderbilt’s Innovation Center the Wondr’y. Read below for Dr. Bell’s perspective on how to apply and learn more about his I-Corps experience.
What makes you want to be an entrepreneur?
I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur. As a child, I used to draw circles and connect the dots. My mom would ask what I was doing, and I told her, “these are my enterprises.”
I had all these great ideas that could go out into the world. I realized, though, that the only way you can make an impact is if people want to use what you create. So now I’m figuring out the process of how to get something from my head and turn it into a product that people want to use and that makes an impact.
Let’s talk about your technology, what is the problem you’re solving for? And who is your target market?
The problem we’re seeking to solve is currently there is a divide between rapid diagnostic tests, which is like your ovulation test and pregnancy tests, and mobile health technology, which includes smartwatches and smartphones. There is no technology that allows them to connect without cost.
There’s a before I-Corps and after I-Corps answer.
In the medical profession you may have to enter rapid diagnostic tests manually, which leads to challenges such as inappropriate result reflection in somebody’s chart, taking up the valuable time of lab techs and nurses, and no connection with other medical records, so it’s not seamless.
Then you have this other market over here with all this technology. Our idea was to bring them together; pair a smartphone with the rapid diagnostic test using the technology on the phone—a camera—that can already read barcodes and QR. It’s a simple, easy solution.
At the same time, on the smartphone side we could make it compatible with electronic medical records and transferable securely aligned with HIPPA. That’s the pre-I-Corps thought, where we thought hospitals might be our target customers.
During and After I-Corps
During the seven week I-Corps program, we conducted 114 interviews. 70% were in person, 15-20% were video chat, and the remainder were over the phone.
We focused on the need we thought hospitals would have for this technology. But we found their diagnostic processes don’t utilize the rapid test and instead they run the full laboratory panel, so it’s already integrated into an electronic medical record.
As we did more customer discovery, we found that there is a need at rural areas and mobile-based health units. If you can’t get the patient to the laboratory, all you can use is these rapid tests. But, oh no, these rapid tests are not connected to what the hospitals use and that’s where our technology comes into play.
Our test needed to be compatible with the hospital systems at the same time as the tele-medical systems; all of it has to work together as one. Therefore, our solution is not just making the test and phone compatible, it’s about making the entire ecosystem around the tech interoperable. That’s what we found out during I-Corps.
What was the application process like for the National Cohort?
My team and I were preparing for the 2019 National Winter Cohort since spring 2018 by participating in the regional sites program at Vanderbilt. We started the National Cohort interview process in late summer.
As far as logistics for anyone applying, I recommend starting your application early. I applied via email and the process took a long time. The application itself was straightforward. During that time, it was a two-page executive summary and an interview process. The interview was a little tough, but my sister and I knew how to handle ourselves as PhDs who like a challenge and have a lot of experience with grant writing.
What is the application interview like?
They want teams to explain their technology, innovation, and the company in concise answers focusing on the business. We experienced questions like:
· Tell me what companies you’re interviewing and what role the people have at those companies
· Provide examples of customer discovery questions you would ask
· What is the status of your Intellectual Property?
· What are the weaknesses of your teams?
The questions they ask continue to change as the I-Corps program evolves.
How would you describe your experience in I-Corps?
It’s awesome and is definitely worth it. I’m the I-Corps coordinator at Wond’ry, so I have a bunch of teams going through the I-Corp Sites program at Vanderbilt. What I tell people is that when I started my first company, in order to figure out what I was doing or if I had product market fit, I had to sell a piece of my company to get money.
I-Corps different; I-Corps is a grant of non-diluted funding. Before you even get in the business portion of your journey, you can go out and discover if your service or product fits a market need. If there is no fit, you save yourself money. If there is, you already have two things: data that says there is a fit and relationships with people who have a need for your technology.
All of that with non-diluted funding and you get funding. I don’t want to say it’s a no brainer, because a lot of people are scared to go through such a challenging process. But it’s a no brainer.
Going through the process takes seven weeks. It’s tough. You’re going to be working, 100 interviews is no joke. You have to find people to interview, you have to analyze the data for the interview, and you have to make a hypothesis. Moving forward, you have to validate the hypothesis or pivot.
It’s a serious process, but it’s worth it.
The businesspeople have a better understanding of it, but for the scientist this is a hard fit. I tell them, “you know when you’re in a lab, you build a hypothesis based on your knowledge that something is gonna work. Is that the end?” And they’re like “No, you have to test the hypothesis. You gotta determine if it’s supported or needs to be changed for another test.” That methodology they describe is the exact methodology behind customer discovery in business.
The program is worth it if you’re not trying to waste time selling portions of your company to figure out if you should have a company in the first place. You start with finding out if your solution is any value to the market. You go through I-Corps and you figure out why so many companies fail. There are so many great ideas out there, but if they’re not solving a problem that’s significant enough that someone will separate from their hard-earned money to obtain the product you provide, you don’t have a business.
What advice would you give to someone going through I-Corps?
Do as much preparation as you can. Set up as many interviews you can before the program starts. Let’s say your program starts Jan 15, you should have interviews lined up for the first two weeks in advance. The hardest thing for us was we didn’t do that, so we had to organize the interviews in real time as we had to perform interviews, analyze data, and report. It took a lot of time and that was super stressful.
The better prepared you are before you get in the program, even 9-10 interviews scheduled each week, you could spend so much more time gleaning information from the interview. We were busy trying to schedule interviews for each week. Then there’s a flow to the interview where you have to ask non-leading questions to get the right information, teams need to prepare for that.
I also try to inform the entrepreneurial leads before they get there about how they should be as leaders of the team, mentors on how to mentor the team, and principal investigators how they should see this as a scientific exercise. Their scientific minds can help identify how to best phrase and investigate their hypothesis.
Some people are not tasked with reporting results in front of a large group of people and having faculty tear down those results. This is a component about I-Corps you should know about.
This is not a joke or a game, and you’re going to find out on day one. If you didn’t find out day one, day two you’ll know. That way people aren’t floored completely by the I-Corps experience.
Thank you for your time, do you have any last thoughts?
I can talk about I-Corps all day. I-Corps is a valuable opportunity I’m trying to tell people about. People find out that I have startups are trying to figure out where to start. I say, “I have something for you.” On my team, it made a huge impact on all four of us.
Anyone who has a technology, knows someone with a technology, is willing to go through sites programing, already has NSF lineage and has an inkling to commercialize your product, do I-Corps.