By Sonia K. González, DrPH, MPH
Frank Rimalovski is an early-stage investor and entrepreneurship educator with over 25 years of experience in technology commercialization, startups and venture capital investing. He is the founding executive director of New York University’s Entrepreneurial Institute, and managing director of their Innovation Venture Fund. He collaborated with Giff Constable to produce the award-winning book Talking to Humans, and its recent successor Testing with Humans. Frank serves as a mentor at TechStars and previously taught at the Courant Institute and Tandon School of Engineering, and served as an Instructor in the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps program. He has trained and mentored hundreds of entrepreneurs in customer development and lean startup methodologies. Previously, he was a founding partner of New Venture Partners, director/ entrepreneur-in-residence at Lucent’s New Ventures Group, and has held various positions in product management, marketing and business development at Sun Microsystems, Apple and NeXT. He has a BA from Tufts University and an MBA from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.
Though I did have an entrepreneurial endeavor in the late 90s time frame, my experience as a VC is more helped shape the Entrepreneurial Institute. In 1998, I moved from Palo Alto, CA back to the NY metro area, and I joined a group at Lucent Technologies (the former R&D arm of AT&T) that was tasked to find alternative paths to commercialize its research through the creation of startup ventures (aka spinouts). As part of this, I did cofound a startup that raised $2 million dollars but ultimately was shut down in the wake of the dot-com/telecom bubble bursting in 2000. Though valuable lessons were learned in that, the ones I really draw on were the ones trying to help start and fund numerous other ventures at Lucent, and later with other corporate research labs. In short, that can be summarized by saying that customers care a lot less about your technology than you think. At the end of the day, they are trying to get a job done (either in the personal or professional lives), and what’s critical is how you can help them get it done better than they do today. The other big insight was about identifying and focusing relentlessly on serving your early adopter customers. Focusing first on the large, growing market was a red herring. I think about these every day as we design and deliver the programs and resources we offer.
The Entrepreneurial Institute offers an array of programs, resources and events to help NYU entrepreneurs learn how to start a startup. As part of the Provost’s office, we are an extracurricular center, in that we don’t offer for-credit classes. Rather, everything we offer is open to all NYU students, faculty & researchers on an opt-in basis, and different resources can be “consumed” a’la carte as needed by the individuals/teams. We designed it this way, as every startup and team is different, and they may come to us at different points in their startup journey. A big part of what we offer is one-on-one coaching to help teams navigate both the resources available and their startup journey itself.
There are many! At the risk of oversimplifying, I think the biggest is overcoming the mythology and misunderstandings about how startups work. As above, your product/technology is just one small part of what’s needed to launch a startup, but most people who walk into our doors think that’s what it’s all about. This is why we start with the customer. You are starting a business to serve someone…that someone is your customer! They are your true north, and everything your business does needs to be designed with them in mind. Another common misconception is around the business planning process. We do not teach (or even encourage them) to write a business plan. Business plans can be a useful tool if you know who your customers are, what they value, how much they’re willing to pay, where and how they like to buy, etc. However, startups by definition don’t know the answers to those questions. At best, they have a set of untested hypotheses, so a critical part of starting a startup is searching for the answers to those questions (i.e., the planning before the plan), and that is why we put so much emphasis on teaching customer development methods to our entrepreneurs. The other big misconception is around fundraising. As a first time founder, no serious investor wants to fund you to find out if you can build it, if you can sell it and if your customers want it, let alone if they are willing to pay for it. We see way too many entrepreneurs wasting their time working on pitch decks and chasing angels and VCs way before they’re ready.
This is bigger than NYC. In recent years, information technology tools and platforms have become more accessible (easier to use), scaleable (faster and capable of handling more data), portable (mobile) and affordable (cheaper) enabling entrepreneurs and developers to point these tools at arguably one of the most pressing problems facing the US: Healthcare. That said, NYC has always been a hub for healthcare. Given the sheer size of the City, we have more hospitals, doctors, nurses, researchers, etc. than anywhere in the US. This makes for a large base of prospective customers and collaborators for the health-tech sector. When you combine all that with the explosive growth of the startup tech sector in the past decade, it makes for very fertile ground. The recent success of homegrown health-tech ventures such as Flatiron Health, Zocdoc, Medidata and others is only serving to further inspire and motivate other entrepreneurs and investors.
Given what I said immediately above, we’re seeing the benefits of Moore’s Law being applied to healthcare, which will lower costs and improve accessibility for everyone, while simultaneously improving our diagnostic and monitoring capabilities to better predict and prevent adverse health outcomes. We’re just starting to see the tip of the iceberg with this now with the likes of activity trackers, EKGs on our wrists, etc. with smartphones, smart watches, etc. While we have a long way to go, it’s exciting to think that we’re just in the early days.
Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.
See answer to the first question above.