5 lessons learned on my journey from startup incubator to market
All around the world, new project and startup incubators are mushrooming. I had the pleasure to be part of the Bosch Internet of Things Lab as an early early-stage incubator at St. Gallen University and ETH Zurich. The lab was created in 2012 by Bosch and Prof. Fleisch, who holds chairs at both Swiss institutions, as an unconventional approach to exploring novel IoT applications, solutions and business models with both research and business perspectives closely intertwined.
Marcus Köhler and I started off here in the first batch of six PhD students, embedded in the research environment of the University of St. Gallen and ETH Zurich in Switzerland. At the time, we had no idea we would be the next startup founders, developing our lab project into a company only two years later. Now, with two entities in Switzerland and Germany and a successful first financing round, we are daring to state that the lab-as-incubator has been a success for Bosch, the university, and naturally us as founders. As we reflected on the time we spent working in the IoT Lab, we recognized distinct factors that made the lab a real incubating environment for us. Some of these were major influences right from the beginning, with others being added over time in the course of the learning process:
5 lessons learned from our incubator phase
Lesson 1: Formally separate from the big company
The Bosch IoT lab is organized as a separate entity under the umbrella of the university. This top management decision was critical in keeping our research independent and ensuring we could explore beyond a more closely defined corporate agenda.
Lesson 2: Put diverse minds together
The lab setting is characterized by its interdisciplinary nature. The team includes engineers, psychologists, economists, and computer scientists, making it possible to develop and assess projects from different angles. Marcus and I specifically could complement each other with our technical and business backgrounds as we developed ComfyLight.
Lesson 3: Dig in for the long haul
Because a PhD program takes about three years, we had plenty of time to experiment and iterate. ComfyLight started as an automatic lighting project, which we ultimately pivoted into a security solution. It took seven months to produce the technical concept for ComfyLight and another two to identify the right use case. Along the way, we had to “kill” a lot of ideas, and of course balance ambition with patience to reach a promising product concept.
Lesson 4: Connect on an individual level
Despite the formal separation, we always touched base with individual Bosch experts so as to benefit from the technical know-how and resources within Bosch. An important bridge between the lab and Bosch was Markus Weinberger, who represents Bosch at the lab in Switzerland on a permanent basis. He helped make sure that we were put in touch with the right corporate teams.
Lesson 5: Money is an accelerator
Of course, the lab resources were an important factor in accelerating iterations by allowing our team to outsource execution tasks so we could focus on our core activities, i.e. developing and test driving concepts from a technical and business perspective.
These five sum it up in a nutshell, leaving other, subtler aspects aside. At the beginning of this year, ComfyLight left the lab to stand on its own and enter a new phase with external investors on board. While Marcus and I are now ramping up a team in Switzerland and Germany to prepare for our market entry in 2016, the lab pipeline is filling up with new and exciting projects by our peers.
What about you? What has been your experience working in a startup incubator? We would love to hear from you about the lessons you’ve learned!