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New Businesses Learn How to "Love Their Customers" at ICAP Startup Boot Camp

By Betsy Hnath

At a recent startup boot camp at Old Dominion University's Strome Entrepreneurial Center, participants got expert advice on how to move their businesses to the next level.

The Innovation Commercialization Assistance Program (ICAP) Lean Startup boot camp kicked off May 8 with 10 businesses selected from a field of 32 applicants.

Over the free two-week course, the startups worked with mentors who helped determine their customer bases and fine-tune their business models.

Though the program -- held in partnership with 757 Accelerate, 757 Seed Fund, 757 Angels and the Hampton Roads Small Business Development Center -- is statewide, this is the first time it's been offered in Hampton Roads.

Akosua Acheamponmaa, a doctoral student in engineering at Old Dominion, and her business partner, Blake Roger, have developed the Auto Valve, a remotely operated valve equipped with a digital water flow meter. The product allows municipal or private companies to monitor and control meters virtually rather than physically. That saves man-hours and offers the capability of identifying malfunctions from a distance.

For Acheamponmaa, who manages the ODU Innovation Center in downtown Norfolk, the chance to tap into the experience of industry leaders like ICAP's program director, Bob Smith, was worth pausing the development of the Auto Valve.

"I'd learned a lot about Lean Startup and what they could offer, so we applied for this," she said. "It's easy to develop the product; it's a lot harder to figure out who you're selling to. And this course taught us that."

Talking to future customers was a key takeaway from the class for Acheamponmaa.

Students were required to spend 15 to 20 hours interviewing potential customers to better understand both their product and those who would eventually use it.

"Bob Smith always says, 'You have to be willing to talk to the people you want to do business with. Otherwise, what's the point?' For us to go out and talk to them, to find out what their needs are and what their pains are will help us be able to build our product around that," Acheamponmaa said.

Smith said startup business models often evolve after customer interactions, which is why a course like ICAP is so valuable.

"I love this group," he said. "They've come very far in such a short amount of time. If you look at a problem and open your mind to the solution, the business model writes itself. All of these startups see that now."

With another ICAP Lean Startup scheduled to begin June 1, Smith is excited to work with the next class of students who want to learn how to "love their customer."

"Your product only matters if someone cares about it," said Smith. "This course teaches businesses how to love the people who will care about their product."

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