It’s a simple truth: Even the most useful new invention can fizzle, if potential customers aren’t able to see a need for it. That’s why accurately assessing market opportunities is a crucial step for anyone who wants to bring a new product to market.
This spring, four University of Oregon graduate students—Tommy Thwing, MBA ’15; Erik Ford, MBA ’15; and law students Ryan Kutter, JD ’16; and Derek Berry, JD ’16—had the opportunity to get hands-on experience with this process when they volunteered to assess a new surgical tool developed at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) in collaboration with Oregon Clinical and Translational Research Institute (OCTRI) that ONAMI (Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute) was considering funding.
It all started when OHSU resident Dr. Neil Roundy, cofounder and chief medical officer of medical device startup NeuraMedica, invented a new tool that makes it faster and easier for surgeons to repair tears in the tissue surrounding the spinal cord. Through a collaboration with OCTRI's Biomedical Innovation Program, Roundy was connected with Rachel Dreilinger, a biomedical engineer and soon to become NeuraMedica cofounder and CEO. As they developed their business idea, Roundy and Dreilinger approached ONAMI seeking gap funding to take the new product to market.
At ONAMI, marketing consultant Len Blackstone suggested performing a market assessment. And he knew where he could find the up-and-coming talent to do so: graduate students who had participated in the most recent Technology Entrepreneurship Program (TEP), the University of Oregon's summer-long cross-disciplinary technology commercialization program. Lundquist Center for Entrepreneurship program manager Nathan Lillegard connected Blackstone with Ford, Thwing, and Kutter. Under Blackstone’s guidance, the team set to work.
While law students Kutter and Berry concentrated, respectively, on legal research and data analysis, the two business students quickly found a natural working rhythm that tapped their specific strengths and interests. Thwing’s passion for data and research made him a natural for the secondary research side of the project: building business growth models and combing medical journals for facts and figures related to neurosurgery and orthopedic surgery. Ford—a self-described people person—took on the primary research, using Thwing’s findings to develop and refine questions for market research phone interview that were conducted all over the United States.
In March, the team presented their findings to NeuraMedica and ONAMI's executive leadership teams. According to Blackstone, the collaboration was a win-win for ONAMI and the students.
“The MBA students gained real-world, real-project experience working with startup companies,” said Blackstone. “And ONAMI and the State of Oregon are benefiting from the hard work, inquisitive minds, and intelligent thinking of the UO’s MBA students. Erik and Tommy have been an absolute delight to work with and have done a great job.”
Indeed, the MBA students’ work so impressed Blackstone that he’s engaged them on two more ONAMI technology commercialization projects—this time in paid positions—along with a new crop of interns from the Oregon MBA program.
Their experience with the ONAMI project has opened up new career goals for both Thwing and Ford. Though Thwing came into the Oregon MBA program on the finance and securities analysis track and will graduate having fully completed that concentration, his work with TEP and this more recent project has enabled him to discover a passion for entrepreneurship and consulting. Ford—who entered the Oregon MBA in the innovation and entrepreneurship track—has realized that his true calling is market research, not the startup scene.
What’s next for the two MBAs, who both graduate this June? Ford will continue teaching courses in business analytics as an instructor at the Lundquist College, where he has taught part-time since summer 2014. Thwing looks to land a job providing business and marketing analytics for local startups.
Because their partnership has proved so fruitful, Ford and Thwing have also launched their own part-time consulting group. Their first project kicks off in June and they hope to help bring many more products and technologies to market.