Tagged: lean startup

1871: Chicago’s Digital Startup Incubator

Thanking Troy Henikoff for a recent1871 walk-thru, which I joined as part of an MIT delegation. We first met at Techstars Demo Day back in 2014. Three years have gone by since, Troy is now a Managing Director with Math Venture Partners, an early to growth-stage fund focusing on entrepreneurial undertakings featuring “an unfair advantage in acquiring and retaining customers to produce outsized returns.” Here is a sample of Math’s portfolio.


1871 is a digital startup incubator and is positioned as Chicago’s premier center for entrepreneurship in the tech sector. Techstars is a startup accelerator and, as pointed out above, Math Venture Partners is an investment firm.

Long story short, 1871 is first and foremost optimized as a community environment. The underlying supporting framework provides collaborative workspaces, training focusing on design, technology and business, which includes senior mentorship, incubators and accelerators. All of these opportunities are available following the under-one-roof collocation practice downtown Chicago.

“What is 1871? The story of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 isn’t really about the fire. It’s about what happened next: A remarkable moment when the most brilliant engineers, architects and inventors came together to build a new city. Their innovations — born of passion and practical ingenuity — shaped not just Chicago, but the modern world. What started 140 years ago continues to this day. Come to a place where you can share ideas, make mistakes, work hard, build your business and, with a little luck, change the world.” –  1871

Matter is 1871’s neighbor and Chicago’s healthcare startup incubator. As shared in this Chicago Tribune’s article, Chicago has major hospitals, medical schools, pharmaceutical and device companies, a powerful healthcare hub which Matter seeks to galvanize by supporting entrepreneurial initiatives and innovative tech.

Chicago’s area is also home to leading institutions such as University of Chicago, Northwestern University, Loyola University Chicago, The Illinois Institute of Technology, and DePaul University just to name a few. So, academia and industry intersect to take advantage of talent and business opportunities. 


My personal interest in environments such as 1871 has to do with a “give & take” experience. Born in Hispania and back in the distant Roman times, Seneca the Younger believed that we are learning even more when we share knowledge that we might already posses. Basically, he was talking about Human Factors and Information Interaction: a virtuous feedback loop kicks in when we strive to articulate thoughts and structure conceptual frameworks to better convey insights. That, in turn, springs new thoughts.

I pride myself about having developed a mix of creative and in-depth expertise on innovation practices thanks to a fortunate interdisciplinary career spanning 20+ years already. That personal belief is backed by specific achievements and, admittedly, some disappointments, both having delivered teachable moments worth reflecting upon.

So, in a “give and take” scenario, my “giving” has to do with sharing know-how and synthesizing relevant advice to entrepreneurs, which I have been able to provide by joining Dr. Moises Goldman’s 1871 mentoring sessions on several occasions.

Going back to Seneca the Younger’s thinking, in exchange for volunteering my time (and whichever insights I can provide) I always get to “take” away valuable experiences back home with me such as:

(1) a sense of great satisfaction and fulfillment that comes from helping others in a meaningful way,

(2) a contagious entrepreneurial spirit that one can instinctively embrace in discussions driven by passion and determination,

(3) their combined positive impact in my own work since they re-energize my thoughts and goals.

My grandma used to remind me about a Spanish saying that translates into “tell me who you walk with and I’ll tell you who you are,” which might equate to “birds of feather flock together” in English. In any case, and leveraging Human Factors again, social and professional networks can be graphically depicted by nodes (individuals) and links (relationships), which can carry information such as reputation and influence levels, as well as information dissemination paths. So, I’m glad to count those who I interact with at 1841 as part of my network and can only hope that this is a mutually beneficial relationship.

Where do good ideas come from? (2)

“What bound them was a shared belief in the nearly sacred mission of Bell Laboratories and the importance of technological innovation. The men preferred to think that they worked not in a laboratory but (…) in an institute of creative technology. This description aimed to inform the world that the line between art and science  of what Bell scientists did wasn’t always distinct (…) they were paid for their imaginative abilities. But they were also paid for working within a culture, and within an institution, where they very point of new ideas was to make them into new things.” – “The Idea Factory. Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation” by Jon Gerner.

“There are two ways of identifying projects to pursue. One is to recognize that a scientific field has emerged or reached an inflection point, and that it can solve, often in a new way, a practical problem of importance (…) the second way to identify projects is to uncover an emerging user need that existing technologies cannot address (…) a project portfolio should include a healthy balance of both kinds of initiatives (…) both can be identified through quantitative analyses (…) Project leaders who can successfully lead DARPA like efforts posses the skills of the best CEOs of science or engineering based start-ups.” – “Special Forces Innovation: How DARPA Attacks Problems” by  Regina E. Dugan and Kaigham J. Gabriel.

Previous article: “Where do good ideas come from (1)?


Old Idea by F.P. Carrion. Creative Commons.

My experience is that a good idea can actually come from anywhere, anyone and at unexpected times. Perhaps, what it takes to deliver a successful ideation process that is repeatable is a better question to ask than just where a good idea could come from. Serial ideation is a critical success factor for the following reasons:

  • a one trick pony (one-offs) might not be able to sustain a company’s business over the mid and long term
  • fast followers can not just catch up and compete, but also move up the value chain, unless the company remains a step ahead
  • the cloud age brings about lower barriers to entry and the need for market leaders to rise the stakes
  • change happens and what makes a company successful in the future is no longer what that enterprise started with

Picasso was quoted saying that “good artists borrow, great artists steal.”  As shocking as that might first sound, the underlying message is meant to be a thought provoking one. There is a good chance that the point behind that statement had more to do with:

  • exercising one’s curiosity and being out there scouting
  • engaging in public discourse, sharing and learning from others
  • deconstructing, assimilating, aggregating, evolving, transforming and revolutionizing
  • looking for applications in new or adjacent contexts or, simply, taking things to new levels
  • making the outcome one’s own signature work and innovating in the process

To Picasso’s point, serial ideation can benefit from scouting and tuning in concepts to a particular market frequency. There are some other thoughts on this topic which I would like to share in subsequent articles. However, I would now like to provide the following list. Please keep in mind that these one-line-descriptions might not fully depict the scope of what a given item entails:

Ideation set 1:

  • theory of constrains – defining limitations and operating boundaries to work with
  • unconstrained thinking – devising the art of the possible without boundaries
  • blue ocean – looking for new uncontested opportunities
  • scenario planning – identifying context, variables and probabilities for future scenarios
  • game theory – modeling decisions, conflict and resolution paths
  • predictive markets – speculative markets where participants buy and sell “idea futures”
  • predictive analytics – statistical analysis forecasting future events

Ideation set 2:

  • cross pollination – identifying and integrating elements from different domains and projects, connecting dots
  • cross functional team – collaborating across different disciplines, functional expertise, experience and levels in an organization
  • holistic approach – zooming out to assess the value of the whole and how parts interact, an end-to-end systems approach
  • systems integration – leveraging synergies across elements and subsystems under a new overarching solution
  • situational awareness – assessing contexts and environments as well as cause-effect relationships
  • network effects – exploring externalities and chain reactions
  • multivariable testing – testing for more than one component or aspect
  • a/b testing – comparison testing involving alternative options

Ideation set 3:

  • reduction – deconstructing a problem and solving for smaller ones first
  • point solution – zooming in by focusing on addressing a single problem
  • post mortem –  extracting learning from a finished project whether successful or unsuccessful
  • reverse engineering – learning gained from the backward analysis of an existing solution
  • analytics –  capturing patterns, identifying leading and lagging indicators and relationships
  • deep dive – immersing the research team in a given situation or problem

Ideation set 4:

  • subject matter expertise – know-how delivered by specialists and analysts
  • doogfooding – gathering first hand feedback from employees using the company’s own products
  • role play – simulation exercise where researchers assume personas, characters relevant to a problem
  • ethnographic research – unobtrusively observing users’ behaviors in real-life contexts
  • empathy research – researchers experience themselves the same cases and context lived by actual users
  • usability testing – gathering direct input from users as they are using the system
  • user diaries – logs and activity diaries capturing test users situations, benefits and challenges
  • liveblogging – rolling information shared by means updates, blogging and streaming video
  • sensing network – obtaining environmental and individual data from sensors and videos
  • day-in-the-life – studying interaction lifecycles (before-during-after time lapses) for a given user or set of users
  • focus groups – qualitative input gathered by facilitating group discussions with stakeholders
  • user interview – individual, one one one discussions
  • lead user – input provided by early adopters as well as examining adaptations created by power users
  • user feedback survey – leveraging conventional surveying tools
  • user forum – conference involving customers
  • online user forum – web based user input
  • social media – conversations, listening and reputation management tools involving social networking

Ideation set 5:

  • crowdsourcing – soliciting ideas and solutions by engaging external contributors online
  • contests – reward based competitions involving in-house and/or external experts
  • idea box tools designed to collect new ideas, some also include voting
  • boot camp – fast track experiential training as part of project development

As shared above, another article on this topic will follow. Thanks for the emails received to date ; )

“Descartes said in the Discourse on Method that it didn’t matter how smart you were; if you didn’t go about things the right way –with the right method- you would not discover anything.” – “Descartes Problem-Solving” by Judith Grabiner.

Where do good ideas come from? (1)

“Ideas come from need; understanding of need comes from experience; and experience comes with age. The world may not yet be ready for your idea, but if you believe in it, keep pursuing it until one day the world is ready. It is never too late for you to innovate.” – “No, You Are Not Too Old to Innovate” by Vivek Wadhwa.

“What if past experience isn’t your best friend? What if it’s your worst enemy, because it’s no longer predictive of anything, and because it’s an impediment to the disruptive change and innovation that we need? – “When Experience Betrays You” by Howard A. Tullman.

I am writing this article to discuss where good ideas come from and whether our experiences matter in that context. In parallel I’m also listening to “The Mind of The Innovator,” a special program on NPR, the American National Public Radio, which is sponsored by NSF, the National Science Foundation. This radio program is addressing what it takes to innovate and outlines the following concepts:

  • problem solving based on the ability to connect dots and to create mental roadmaps
  • playfulness and rapid prototyping to scout for options and to seek early and continuous feedback
  • thinking of real world applications and how to bring them to market… coupled with fear of failure

Speaking of failure, the business of innovating is not for the faint of heart. One’s convictions and mental toughness become instrumental when undertaking the journey between initial research and commercial adoption:

  1. Some startups fail to make that transition, which is also known as the “valley of death” for emerging technologies.
  2. Some other succeed among early adopters, but do not get subsequent traction with a wider market; this case is known as failing to “cross the chasm.”
  3. There are “zombie startups” with enough capital to run operations, which are not growing enough to take the business to the next level.
  4. Fast followers” and even “incumbents” can take advantage of a start-up’s market creation investments and effectively compete in no time.
  5. In-house “corporate antibodies” characterized by unwillingness to take needed risks can slow down and put innovations on hold.
  6. NIH rejection, “Not Invented Here” syndrome, severely limits partnering and outsourcing opportunities as well as integrating existing third party products to speed up overall R&D.
  7. Knockoff” products, “rip-offs,” “start-up clones” and any other “copycat” companies can cause considerable havoc. 
  8. Last but not least, “patent trolls” involve firms engaging in what amounts to frivolous but time and resource consuming litigation.

So, it would seem that the generation of brilliant ideas alone does not seem to be good enough to succeed. Does experience make a difference? I think that the answer is that our personal experiences and lack of thereof matter in both expected and unexpected ways. In today’s fast changing environment, experience will make all the difference many times, but what some perceive as stubborn and restless behaviors can also pay off in quite a few other situations. What makes us smart is to be able to sense what formula applies best under a given context and changing gears accordingly, which is easier said than done when things are in motion.


In any case, I like to quote Seneca, a Roman philosopher who stated that “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” No doubt, unexpected successes based accidental innovations happen, but the entrepreneurial spirit relies on believing in one’s chances because we should be empowered to make our own luck and own our own destiny no matter what challenges and odds we face. This has to do with self-fulfilling prophecies and plenty of positive thinking psychology if you will. Yet, thinking otherwise negates the kind of risk taking and passionate disdain for conformity which most innovations depend on.

Failure happens. We embrace “trial and error” as well as “learning and recovering” to come out stronger at the other end. In that context, stress is what surfaces at the the opposite end. Just like in life* we are often first put to the test and then learn a valuable lesson, that’s what we call teachable moments. Our experiences become memories, actionable knowledge and instincts that make us who we are. Nonetheless, we might blissfully ignore many things, which coupled with our learning ability, relationships, as well as the environment we operate also contribute to define our own self. Entrepreneurial success comes with what would appear to be intractable contradictions to many, here are some examples:

  • an open mindset and a broad world view will definitely help (ability to zoom out) coupled with focus and mental toughness, which also are of the essence (ability to zoom in)
  • determination and discipline helps us thrive, but sensing when to press on opposed to when to shift course and speed also are critical success factors (agility)
  • uniqueness and differentiation define market value while adherence to partnerships and alliances can help us get there before others do.
  • every one of us can make a difference (individualism) though it takes working with others and teamwork to make things happen (cohesiveness)
  • a can do attitude and positivity are required, however we also need to exercise decisiveness and the power of saying no.

I am sure that better terms and examples can be found. In the meantime, I hope that the above helps convey the underlying message. Besides, this is not so much about aiming for normalcy, meeting in the middle, striking a balance or working with averages, all of which can defeat the purpose if applied indiscriminately. It has more to do with juggling balls on a roller coaster ride and embracing the art of the possible.

In my next article I will share a list of about 50 practices and concepts leveraged in ideation, this being the discovery and generation process for new ideas. Though I need to do some more work to provide you with a taxonomy to work with.

* ”The difference between school and life? In school, you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson.” – Attributed to Tom Bodett.