Three Things I Learned in My First Incubator Experience
Last year a couple of my colleagues, Oleg Balakirev and Eugene Park, and I pitched an idea during Northwestern Mutual's NMLaunch, an open call for ideas that use technology to solve problems in new ways. We were then invited to further explore the viability of the idea in the company's incubator program.
Our plan was to develop a real-world use case for blockchain by utilizing the technology to aggregate, store and transport medical records easily and in compliance with HIPAA regulations. We pursued the idea, in part, because one member of our team had a lot of family members in the medical field who struggled with the sharing and storing of confidential data. But people at our headquarters also saw its potential use for Northwestern Mutual. In the insurance business, we spend a lot of time reviewing medical records.
The experience was my first ever in an incubator, and I learned a lot during those three months.
Be prepared to pivot. During an incubator program, you can
only do so much. We quickly realized our original, grand idea was way too
big a challenge to tackle in such a short time period. While we still want
to make it happen eventually, we ended up zeroing in on a very specific
problem, developing a prescription drug management app that would allow
assisted living and nursing home staff to easily detect drug-to-drug
interactions for their residents. We found that most places have their own
manual system for checking drug compatibility, but this would automate that
process, leaving less room for human error.
The incubator experience helped us see that while we had to narrow our focus, we didn’t need to view the pivot as a concession. Instead, we saw it as a valid first step in our journey to solve the broader medical records issue.
- Outreach takes time. While we were developing a minimally viable product (MVP) and a website to support it, we also spent a lot of time (more than we expected) identifying and reaching out to the other businesses we needed to help make this happen. We contacted labs and pharmaceutical companies to provide test data. We identified a health visualization team to add a visualization layer on top of that data. And we found a nursing home that would be willing to test our concept. Lining all of this up was a challenge, especially when you have to ask people to participate within your 90-day window. I found it helps immensely if you've got your “pitch” down pat.
- Tell a compelling story. You have to be able to sell your idea at every point throughout the startup journey. While we thought we had a pretty compelling story to tell at the outset, we obviously needed to tweak the narrative as we shifted gears to focus in on the challenge of managing prescription data in nursing homes. Beyond that, one of our biggest challenges was finding a way to clearly communicate both the business case for our product and how blockchain could solve it, and tell that story in a way that was easy for our audiences to understand. That was the real task; it was pretty tricky to distill our research and approach down to a digestible, four- or five-minute pitch that would generate enthusiasm.
Based on my first incubator experience, my bottom-line advice for any new entrepreneur is this: Don't wait for things to be perfect, because they won't be. When starting a new business, there is only so much you can predict with the information you have. The only way to really know if something will work is to test it in a quick-and-dirty way, then refine the business “canvas.” Your rough idea will become more and more polished over time, so it’s important to have patience and consistent drive!
We continue to move our app forward. We call it HIFE, which stands for Health Information File Exchange.