Mentoring Tech Startups
Columbia Global Centers | Mumbai organized a series of training sessions for startups from India that were selected for the Urban Works Innovation Challenge 2019-2020, in partnership with the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science and The CoWrks Foundry.
The mentorship curriculum was inaugurated with a three-day workshop from January 7-9 2020 by Ivy Schultz, Director of Entrepreneurship at Columbia Engineering. Three winning startups from India - Innerhour, Swapeco, and Agua - learned about customer discovery, value proposition, and pitching. The workshop commenced with introducing the startups to the importance of creating and continuously testing their hypotheses for problem-solution fit. Practicing evidence-based entrepreneurship in this fashion is part of the Lean Launchpad methodology in which startups quickly arrive at a minimum viable product that can be taken to market. Ms. Schultz stressed the importance of differentiating between customer discovery and pitching. Teams presented and received feedback on four parameters: viability of the solution, strength of the value proposition, defensibility of the target market, and finally, presentation skills and stage presence.
The next workshop session was conducted on February 3-5 by Ioannis Kymissis, Professor and Vice Chair of Electrical Engineering at Columbia University. The teams learned the method and reasoning behind filing for patents and trademarks. Understanding when to file a patent was particularly useful since it meant balancing the substantial fees in Western markets with protecting one’s invention. The workshop also covered sales partnerships and customer relationships. While this could be viewed as an intuitive process, the startups acknowledged the importance of learning about the sales funnel and how it is important to track key performance metrics at every step to scale effectively. Finally, the teams benefited from a technical session on sensors and Internet-of-Things.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, with disruptions in the startups' on-ground operations, faculty mentors, including Professor Patricia Culligan, Chair and Carleton Professor of Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics at Columbia University, interacted with the three teams one-on-one as part of the shift to an online curriculum. The mentors discussed the startups' lockdown challenges, deconstructed their business models to offer clarity, and did a first-cut analysis of their marketing models.
Next, a web session on branding and marketing was organized for the teams on April 22nd with Yvette Miller, Director of Marketing and Communications at Columbia Entrepreneurship, who conducted a "branding persona" exercise and covered how to think about communications strategy. Jeremy Kagan, Professor and Faculty Director of the Digital Marketing Strategy program at Columbia Business School, provided insights into marketing strategies, along with practical advice on where to go next. This was followed by interactions with the teams to evaluate their progress and give clear directions on how to contextualize them for India.
The CoWrks Foundry also conducted training sessions for the startups on diverse topics including fundraising, financial modeling, tech credits, market sizing, and business development. These sessions helped the teams become more business-savvy and resilient.
Professor Kymissis shared his observations about the teams, noting that “It is great to see products evolve during the training process and along with that the founders themselves grow and become evangelists for entrepreneurship. Students look up to them and get inspired to start up!”