Thursday, July 12, 2007

I've... got a plan.

In December of last year I entered the Lunar Ventures business plan competition with a group of students from the Colorado School of Mines (CSM) and University of Colorado at Boulder (CU). I initially joined as something to keep me busy and learn about how to prepare a business plan, but quickly realized this would become a three person venture with myself being the only one with prior business experience (a whole one semester of business school). The idea of the competition was to "collaborate in creating business ventures related to space." This meant creating a business model with both a near-term terrestrial revenue model and a Lunar application to be implemented in future space missions. Although we didn't win, it was a very enlightening experience that I thought would be worth recounting here.

Our starting point was the research of team member and CSM Computer Science doctoral candidate Arta Doci. Her thesis presented an alternative method for performing wireless communication in a mesh sensor network. This method involved a 'cross-layer' protocol stack, transcending the traditional four layer TCP/IP network stack. This technology was found in simulations to provide the following advantages over traditional wireless network protocols:
  • Performance (data throughput)
  • Longevity (lifespan of each mote)
  • Scalability (total number of possible motes in the mesh network)
Our challenge was to take this technology and apply it to both a Lunar and terrestrial scenario and create a business model around it. A daunting task to be sure; instead of taking an idea and forming a technology around that idea, trying to find a market and measurable competitive advantage for a protocol which could be used in any number of applications. On top of that the technology needed to be sound enough that it could solve current terrestrial issues and be useful (or a starting point) for Lunar missions ten to fifteen years from now.

Since the Lunar applications are fairly nebulous I thought I'd share our terrestrial business model. Our primary offering was a mesh sensor network product we dubbed 'AquaSense'. This product was a network of sensors providing a whole system solution for municipal water networks to monitor the quality and safety of their water supply. It leveraged our proprietary cross-layer optimization protocol along with CDMA to provide communication between the sensor motes. While somewhat ambitious, our research indicated that there are a number of advantages this system could provide to municipalities:
Without going into too much detail as to the market and our business model itself, the feedback from our judges (one of whom had worked in the water industry for several years) was that while our technology was likely unique and definitely interesting, it wasn't clear that first, this was something municipalities would actually adopt and second that others in the wireless field were not already working on similar technologies that would overshadow ours by the time we got to market.

Some of the things I learned through this process that are worth mentioning:

Don't assume your market research is done until you have actually made contact with people in your target industry. I would suggest making 'first contact' as soon as possible once you think you have a market worth pursuing. It can either serve as a confirmation that you are onto something or save you a lot of work (and potential embarrassment) if the market isn't a fit for what you are trying to do.

I really liked the concept of the business plan in a 'deck' format. We were introduced to the idea by Frank Moyes, a professor at the Leeds School of Business in the University of Colorado at Boulder (where I am currently getting my MBA). He suggests that rather than creating a voluminous business plan, put it together using presentation software formatted like a booklet. We took this approach for our venture and the end result was a business plan which contained all of the necessary information but in a format that really 'sells' your idea instead of forcing the reader to really dig into a long document to get a sense for the business. You can find some examples of using a deck for a business plan on Frank's website.

Finally, and this may be obvious but I think that when you are going into a business venture, even if it is only for a competition, you need to be 'in it to win it'. By this I mean if you don't believe in your idea and want to take it to the next level by actually putting your own blood, sweat and tears (read: time, money, passion) into it then how can you expect someone to want to invest in your idea? I spoke to the the winners of the Lunar Ventures competition, Omega Sensors, Inc. after the competition and it was immediately clear they had a drive and a passion for their idea and their hard work paid off in the end.

This experience certainly opened my eyes to what it will take next time to win a competition like this as well as the foundations of starting and funding a fledgling business.

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