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December 10th, 2020


Concept to Prototype: How Do You Get Started?

By Nicholas Kuhn, Entrepreneur-in-Residence, North Central Indiana

All early-stage companies face a similar question almost immediately after that lightning bolt moment, “Where do we start?” Regardless of the industry or sector you’re operating in, the path founders choose to build their first product is a crucial decision that must be thought through with care.

In this article, I explore some best practices for entrepreneurs as they work from concept to prototype. In the beginning, some of the questions you may have are: “Where do I start?”, “Who can help me?”, and “How do I know I’m on the right path?” Surrounding yourself with the right resources, tools, knowledge base and access to equipment will make all the difference.

Where do I start?

Here in Indiana, we have amazing programs and services that are dedicated to the development of prototypes, innovative thinking and failing fast. For example, we have the Battery Innovation Center in Newberry. Clearly stated on their website: Our mission is focused on promoting the rapid development, testing, commercialization, and advanced learning of safe, reliable, high-performance, and lightweight energy storage systems for our commercial, defense, academic partners and industry. Notre Dame’s IDEA Center (Innovation, De-Risking and Enterprise Acceleration) “provides the necessary space, services and expertise for idea development, commercialization, business formation, prototyping, entrepreneurial education”. Other resources include Purdue’s Bechtel Innovation Design Center, IU’s Innovate Indiana, Indiana IoT Lab, and 16Tech in Indianapolis. Many of these facilities are available to students, faculty and the community at large.

Who can help me?

Whether this is your first startup, or you are a seasoned entrepreneur, walking through the initial phases with other entrepreneurs will
assist you by:

  1. Maintaining perspective of your opportunity (you’re not the only one facing these challenges!)
  2. Moving your project forward and reinforcing your need to clearly communicate your opportunity – the current problem people are facing, how this solution works and why it matters.

A pre-accelerator or an accelerator can help you with this, and Indiana has many great options based on company stage, industry and needs. gBeta offers several programs across the state including a specialty in agbioscience. TechStars in Indianapolis has a focus as a Sports Accelerator. High Alpha Innovation in Indianapolis uses a Venture Studio model to help existing companies spin out new ideas, and Elevate Ventures’ Origins program offers Pre-Seed and Seed stage programs.

Also, make sure you have a mentor or group of advisors in place! The programs mentioned above may be able to help you find some, but don’t be scared to seek some out on your own. Either way, regular check-ins will help maintain the balance of working in your company and working on your company.

How do I know I’m on the right path?
“A goal without a plan is just a wish” – Antoine de Saint-Exupèry.

Roadmapping your project is imperative, regardless of the format you use. From a cocktail napkin to enterprise software, the iteration of the tools you use reflect preferences (paper vs. screen), resources (free trial vs. subscription) and needs. A plethora of tools are available – many of which can be found in this Product School article. If you don’t currently have the skills to complete a technical project, here is an article outlining how low code tools can be leveraged for any level of tech acumen. More than anything, be sure to stay focused on what’s
most important, communicate deadlines and objectives with your team and show potential
investors and/or stakeholders where you are heading.

Case Study: Frost Control Systems

Let’s take a look at a startup in the South Bend-Elkhart region that has been on this path for the past few years. Frost Control Systems and its CEO, Brad Tener have been working on a solution to provide Road Weather Information Systems to municipalities big and small, to allow the users real-time accurate data.

“From the concept to the first prototype was about two months,” said Tener. Working in IoT (Internet of Things) at the earliest level is “simple, but not easy”. Tener said a lot of help came from content at Digi, the go-to for hobbyists and new ventures in that space. With a lot of tutorials and content, Tener was able to surround himself with enough information and tools to continue moving the project forward. Digi also hosts forum resources, where you can learn from others. Tener said, “The online community in IoT is very helpful, there are forums around hardware devices and software builds.”

After the prototype for Frost Control Systems was built, Tener turned his attention to potential customers. For some “best test efforts“ knowing that the product was very nascent, the City of South Bend stepped in to help. Unfortunately, they found the product to be too difficult to install, too costly and it needed to be smaller to meet specs. This feedback loop was critical so that Frost Control could continue to iterate towards a product that their ideal customer would utilize. When asked about timing for this, Tener commented “the first iteration away from a prototype should take a few weeks but no more than three months to move forward.” It’s important to move quickly, yet thoroughly, through this iteration process.

When it came to a physical setting, Frost Control established residency at Notre Dame’s Innovation Park. Tener believes that Frost Control wouldn’t exist without Innovation Park and the community, conversations and key individuals’ willingness to engage. Advisors were brought on before money was earned or raised, reiterating that mentors and advisors can help your business at any stage; sometimes the earliest stage is the most important.

In the past two years, Frost Control has grown its client base, FTE (full-time employee) count, and continues to iterate their product and offerings. The stages get longer with each new release, but what remains constant is the need to listen to customers’ needs.

Frost Control lives in the Internet of Things space, where the hardware builds and the tech stacks look different for every opportunity. Your opportunity may be in an unrelated field, yet the consistency of being goal-oriented, allowing yourself to prototype (try) and fail (iterate) while surrounded by a community of supporters is vital. Utilizing these best practices can help you on your path toward success as a startup founder.

This perspective does not mention all resources that Indiana has to offer. Please visit your local ISBDC or other entrepreneurial support organizations for additional resources in your area.
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