The CU New Venture Challenge: Just Pull the Trigger! (by Kevin Davis)
“This sounds like too much, too soon.” This was my thought as I sat across from Trent Yang and Steve Herschleb in the Deming Center conference room listening to their pitch on why REbound Technology should join the New Venture Challenge. It was a month after Russell and I founded the company, one month before the application was due and well before any thought was put into an actual application for our thermal energy storage technology. Nine months later we just attended the NREL Industry Growth Forum, socializing with a corporate and investor community that will, one day soon, help finance our development efforts, bring a product to market, and make ARPA-E wonder why they ever invested in batteries. None of this current or projected progress would have happened without CU Cleantech throwing us into the NVC mix.
Put simply, the NVC accelerated our business by A) pulling us away from MATLAB models and forcing us to think through regions, industries, incentives, capital expenses and margins, B) providing excellent networking opportunities and C) making us a punching bag for judges.
The NVC took us out of our comfort zone by thrusting us into the world of business development well before we had an established technology. Don’t get me wrong, we had a great concept and promising simulations to support it. However, if you asked me whether I thought we were anywhere close to thinking about gross margins my response would have been a resounding “hell no.” As it turned out, thinking through those business issues up front helped shape our technology. Nate Abbott from Everlater gave us that advice 10 months ago and investors continue to give us that advice today. In the end, it turns out the technology comes second. Think of an idea, advance its development, but let your markets drive the technological refinements. Thankfully the NVC taught us that early on because since the NVC, we’ve had a few technology pivots; small ones, but each market driven.
Networking was the number one reason we listened to Trent and Steve. Russell and I figured that if we crashed and burned, at least there were individuals from the community reading and talking about our tech. As it turned out, we made it to the CUNVC finals and the regional NVC cleantech finals, each providing excellent networking opportunities. In fact, at the regionals we met Rob Writz from CleanLaunch, an incubator at NREL now helping us advance our business. CleanLaunch has continued where the NVC left off, helping develop our business model through advisors, networking and, in the near future, fundraising support.
Now, getting beat up by a panel of judges who don’t know a thing about your technology seems unjust, right? As it turns out, it’s a blessing in disguise. We seemed to avoid any lashings at the CUNVC finals, but the regionals were quite different. Practicing a 20 minute pitch for a week only to be interrupted after sentence five by an inquisitive judge might not seem ideal, but its certainly realistic. Standing by while judges rip apart your business plan is also a reality. We definitely weren’t ready for the regional competition and it showed. While some technical comments by judges were just wrong, others regarding costs, margins, distribution, etc. were entirely justified. I wanted to jump on a computer and sign up for an MBA right there and then. The good news: we learned the hard way early on and, thanks to the NVC, we know what to expect going forward. Will we take a few additional beatings during fundraising? Sure, it’s inevitable. But at least we’ll be a bit desensitized, learn from the experience, iterate, and keep moving forward.
So, my advice to those thinking about participating in the NVC: stop thinking and pull the trigger, now. Get involved early and take advantage of the mentorship provided by the NVC along with other great organizations like CU Cleantech. In the end, the practical experience you gain from the NVC process will far outweigh your thermodynamics, environmental policy, biochem, marketing or communications course. Learn how to shift your focus from technical to business, learn to walk up to random people and pitch your idea, learn how to get up in front of a crowd and kill it with kick ass presentation. These are all critical professional development lessons, regardless of the NVC outcome.
Kevin Davis is the Co-Founder of REbound Technology