There is art, and there is science. I would argue that in some, if not most disciplines, when applied to the real world, they coexist. I watched The Martian this weekend on TV, because my older daughter was watching it, and she is into science like I am. The movie is three years old, but I rarely go watch movies in the theater (twice a year?), and I’ve always been captivated by the space program with which I grew up. It was interesting to follow the drama as it pertained to (spoiler alert) the rescuing astronauts’ real time iterations when calculating how far away and at what velocity they would be travelling at the closest contact point with the one astronaut they needed to rescue out in the vacuum of open space.

The conditions in space and the accumulated knowledge and our understanding of the physics around it make it a pretty exact science. The “art” part of the equation was introduced as the rescuing party – which had precise systems for measurement – had to suddenly eyeball the rescue of another party which had no systems, no way of exactly measuring where it was coming from and where it was going. I will not tell you what happens at the meeting point – you will have to watch the movie for that – but I sort of equate it with our entrepreneur’s search for product-market fit.

If you read last week’s newsletter, you would know that we just got back from spring break. The last thing I did before taking a week off was submit my assessment of the participants for my portion of the Startup NOW accelerator boot-camp. Based on this and the assessment of two other faculty members, notifications were sent informing who would be moving on to the Lean Launchpad phase. This is the phase where art meets science, when trying to validate a business idea.

As an engineering student, I went through some heavy duty science. Physics, chemistry, biology, with all its variants and mind boggling topics and sub disciplines: optics, waves, reaction kinetics, fluid dynamics, thermodynamics, electricity and magnetism, cell membrane diffusion, catalysis, radioactive decay – you name it, I was introduced to all and delved deeply into these and many other topics. In controlled lab or production environments, pretty much everything can be calculated, specified, estimated, forecasted. And everything, in a most awe inspiring and beautiful way, is tied together by the universal language of algebra – but that would be the topic of another article.

When I stepped out into the real, uncontrolled world – initially as a process engineer in the world’s largest erythromycin fermentation plant, which was the first “dragon” I was tasked to tame and control – is when the “art part” hit me like a ton of bricks. I could not exactly measure the opposing forces pushing up and pushing down on a sludge of living organisms that produced my antibiotic, but I could design and deploy a computer controlled algorithm – guided by good science – that could ultimately with total certainty avoid a sterile tank from overflowing or running dangerously low as long as my instruments did not fail (valves, sensors).

The Lean Launchpad stage into which our participants in the Startup NOW cohort 4 got immersed starting last week is the stage at which they will have to tame their dragons – their tightly held ideas with all their biases and misconceptions – their hypotheses – and apply some, let’s call it, “artful science” to figure out if they have a market audience for the product or service they want to offer. This is not an easy thing to do. It requires a scientific approach in the customer discovery process – what to ask, when to ask, when to stay quiet and listen – in the quest to understand the pains and needs of their customers. It also requires an artistic approach in the customer discovery process – what to ask, when to ask, when to stay quiet and listen – in the quest to understand the pains and needs of their customers.

Read the last paragraph again. No, you did not read wrong the end of it. I did not make the mistake of duplicating a sentence. I was using a literary artifice which probably someone has already named – not the point right now – to make the point that the “art part”, and the “science part”, became intermingled to the point that you can’t make them out from each other. As a human being (like all consumers are) with all my biases, preferences, needs, intents, value systems and abilities, I supply you with a prose narrative that I control, but you cannot, and you don’t know where I’m going with certainty. The rescuing astronauts did not know where the lost one uncontrollably oscillating in space was going with certainty. Same thing happens in the market place when you confront it. You think you know a service or product that the market will want, but would be a fool to believe this with certainty. I did give you a hint of the point I was trying to make in the last paragraph earlier in the same paragraph, when I referred to the need to apply “artful science”. When our entrepreneurs approach the market during Lean Launchpad, they will have to look for these hints as well.

We wish them deep insight discovery, we wish them well. By the way, and as a disclaimer if they get hit by the ton of bricks, I reiterate, they did not teach me this in engineering school.

Our View from the Top – March 13, 2018