By Marta Teperek
How to create twelve exciting business ideas in just fifty-four hours?
Here is a simple recipe – take:
50 passionate entrepreneurs + 10 expert coaches + an efficient organising team, mix them, and get them to work together.
How did it work?
Friday evening – hit the ground running
On Friday evening fifty-five life sciences budding entrepreneurs gathered at the Cambridge Judge Business School. Everyone started off quite shy and not very talkative, thinking: “What is it all about? Is it for me? I do not know anyone here…Why am I here?” A sudden change happened after Hanadi Jabado, the energetic Director of Accelerate Cambridge put people into pairs and asked each pair to take three minutes to come up with a business idea and a pitch around two randomly allocated words. And the ball got rolling – a sudden creativity burst! “chocolate – truffle”, “tablet – white”, “science – release”, “pyjama – cocaine” – all of these random two words combinations were suddenly turned into potential businesses. Magic!
Brains now warmed up, spirits raised, people started to get to know each other… and the real work began. All entrepreneurs with ideas for a startup lined up to pitch for sixty seconds in front of everyone. It was amazing – more than half of the audience went on stage to pitch, one after the other. Everyone voted for their favourite ideas… 10 were to be selected but the choice was so tough, and the entrepreneurs so eager, that in the end, twelve ideas were chosen to go ahead. The next challenge was to find the right team: “Who do I need on my team? What skills do I need? Will we get on well?” – tough questions again and it took a while to form teams. But in the end, by 10PM, the teams were there, the ideas were created, and the teams began to work on their newly formed business ideas until midnight.
Saturday – intense
The teams were tired after working late on Friday night, yet arrived at 8AM at Cambridge Judge Business School in time for a quick breakfast with a cup of coffee. Everyone needed a strong coffee to wake up after the short night and get going. The brainstorming within the teams started: working at their laptops, running into town to conduct interviews, looking up information on the web.
The rapid pace slowed down only slightly over a working lunch with a lecture on business models delivered by Simon Stockley, senior teaching faculty in entrepreneurship. Expert guidance, excellent tips, and a strong but encouraging kick for the teams to further improve their ideas. Hurry! Coaches were to arrive at 2PM and they needed to know about the business models!
Coaching sessions were super-intense – to that extent that no one turned up for the afternoon coffee break, so as not to waste time. The advice from coaches was invaluable… some ideas were turned upside-down, which meant even more work that night. Coaching sessions were followed by a quick break to grab pizza for dinner, and again – teams worked hard until midnight.
Sunday – more work… and the winners announced!
Everyone turned up even more tired on Sunday, but that was the last day to improve business ideas – so everyone arrived promptly for breakfast at 8AM. The coaches also joined from first thing in morning – understanding that it was the last opportunity to provide the teams with feedback. Intense work again, and some ideas had to be re-iterated.
No rest for the wicked, as lunch on Sunday was also a working lunch, but it was inspiring. Hanadi Jabado spoke on “How to pitch”, “What mistakes to avoid”, and “How to behave when pitching” and then the teams panicked before their final pitch! Everyone rushed to work on their final presentations – everything needed to be ready for 4.30PM for the tech check-up before the final pitches at 5PM.
5PM – the final hour: judges arrived and final pitches began…and what happened was astonishing: amazing quality, unbelievably good, appealing startup ideas created in just fifty-four hours!
In summary: these were all real, rapid stories of success. And here are the winners:
3rd place: nSense – Fight Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML) with nanobodies that will guide repair machinery specifically to cancer cells;
2nd place: Zoomph – Chemotherapy and then what? Zoomph’s app will help you optimise your recovery with set of exercise, lifestyle and diet;
1st place: Endotraps – ‘mazing idea on novel therapeutic strategy as treatment of pre-eclampsia by lowering/sequestering the increased endothelin-1 levels in the circulation that would ameliorate pathology associated with increased endothelin-1 levels.
All three winners have secured their place on a 3-month long Accelerate programme to transform their ideas into real business opportunities. In addition to the three winners, the judges gave a special mention to MeDNA Diagnostics, working on a new approach to cancer diagnostics and stratification, who were also offered a place on the Accelerate programme. The people’s choice award went to ULTRUNIQ for their work on an Alzheimer’s cure.
In the end everyone was tired, but extremely happy and satisfied – hard work, a lot of fun, so many new friends, and most importantly – the ideas to work on and teams to execute were there! Everyone happily went for dinner and drinks to the Royal Cambridge Hotel. And everyone kept saying: it was a truly amazing weekend.
What did participants say about the weekend?
“Great opportunity to experience almost real journey of a startup weekend in fifty-four hours”
said Geylani Can, PhD student and a co-founder of nSense, 3rd place winner, who at the beginning was not even sure if his winning idea was worth pitching on Friday!
“I was inspired to believe in myself and to believe that if I follow my passion, I can really contribute”
added Helene Fox, PhD student and a co-founder of Endotraps, who won the prize for the best startup idea. Before the startup weekend Helene kept saying that she wants to observe, as she wasn’t sure if that’s something for her.
So that’s how the startup weekend changes you – from a tiny idea on Friday, or from being unsure if you want to take part, you suddenly create tangible business plans – and all thanks to teamwork and support. It is indeed a truly amazing experience and invaluable lesson for everyone.
“Really high energy and it’s impressive to listen to them! Their passion is inspiring and I’m learning a lot!”
said excitedly Dr Hitesh Sanganee, one of the coaches at the Startup Weekend. Hitesh worked for fifty-four hours during the weekend, and his coaching sessions were overbooked from the start!
“The enthusiasm and innovative thinking from the teams and productivity over such a high-intensity, creative and fun fifty-four hours, has been a great inspiration.”
summarised Duncan Young, who did two days of coaching in one day (four hours of extra coaching!)
And finally: what’s my own opinion about the Startup Weekend?
I have joined the Startup Weekend as part of the organising team. This was an extremely valuable experience and it felt so rewarding to contribute to what was happening there, but from the very start I regretted greatly that I was not one of the entrepreneurs participating in the event! I so much wanted to join them from the first night, go and try pitching, join their teams, brainstorm together, listen to the expert feedback from coaches, be part of the creation and build something great together. I know for sure that I am participating in the next startup weekend, and I am so looking forward to it. The energy is really contagious, and it is incredibly inspiring. I was extremely exhausted after the weekend, but being part of it was so rewarding and satisfactory that I have a huge energy kick that will keep me excited for a long time.
I would highly recommend participating in a startup weekend to everyone – I guarantee that you will not regret it.
Lessons Learnt from a Startup Weekend By Alexandre Navarro
Last weekend, I took part in the FinTech Startup Weekend at the Judge Business School in Cambridge, UK. Since I come from a more technical background, mostly engineering and machine learning, I thought it would be an interesting experience to familiarise myself with these events. This way, I would be better prepared to pitch and develop an idea at a future event.
Apart from learning more about pitching, the business canvas and some basic MBA tools, the event allowed me to gain several insights into the more subjective aspects of starting a company. These aspects comprise a wide range of subjects from product design to spotting the signs that your team probably has a focus issue. I tried to distil these lessons down to four core concepts:
1 An exercise in faith and reason
Eventually you will need to face the hard truth that founding a company is a ludicrous idea from a risk perspective. The odds against the success of new companies are slim and, even if you succeed in the early startup phase, there is a chance your company might never leave the startup zone (and become one of the so-called zombie startups).
Therefore, if you want to found a new company, you definitely need to have a deep connection to your product and business idea. I advocate that either this should arise from experience, gained through scrutiny of current products and business strategies, or through actual hands-on experience. While the romantic idea of a sudden stroke of genius may be very attractive, these ideas usually do not survive even a simple internet search.
However, one should never rely on faith alone: there is a time to be reasonable as well. A healthy dose of scepticism is crucial to a considered analysis of your business idea. Too much self-identification with the customer can be detrimental as it introduces a ‘sloppiness bias’ in the analysis. People who are over-excited about an idea tend to downplay all possible setbacks and assume that demand exists which is simply not there. Moreover, over-optimism leads teams to take business assumptions for granted with little or no evidence to back them up. In short, putting yourself in the customer’s shoes is valuable, but you should not get carried away.
2 The people element
No matter how smart, fit, and well prepared you are, founding a company and developing a product is too much work for just one person. We cannot forget the time-to-market element in product development and, workload aside, a fresh perspective is usually welcome.
This leads us to the important people element of the startup equation. Most advice on founding a company mentions the need to be careful who you collaborate with, often mentioning some the legal aspects of company share allocations. But before you get anywhere near that stage, you must first find people to help you get to that stage.
That means you need to find people you like to work with and who complement your skill set. It is a mistake to choose a team with the same characteristics as you. A group that focuses too much on the business side but forgets all about the product is as problematic as a group of techies who only focus on adding product features irrespective of market response.
This brings us to the startup’s focus. Initially, focus on the actual product, without losing sight of the business case – not the other way around. This is may seem counterintuitive, but when you are starting a new company, you do not have the resources to build anything more than the core of your business. Nothing is more at the core of a startup other than its product.
That is exactly why MVPs (minimum viable products) are important. They help shape your product and your business model to the real world. This forces small startups to use the same techniques major engineering companies use for new projects: Front-End Loading (FEL) development. Roughly speaking, in FEL methodology, a new project starts with back-of-the-envelope design and calculations to check if the business case is worth a more thorough study. If the answer is negative, the business should pivot, otherwise the team develops the design further and rechecks its economic feasibility. Considering this at every step of the creation of a MVP helps to maintain focus on the business case.
Another crucial point for a startup that is set up during an entrepreneurial event such as a startup weekend is that one should always strive to make a case that outlives the event and not to tailor it only to the judging criteria. Focussing just on ticking boxes to meet the competition’s criteria will not be enough to build a sustainable business. Moreover, by striving to think beyond the competition, the startup should automatically meet the criteria of any serious competition.
4 Hanadi’s Law
Several times during the competition, our dear Hanadi said, “Because this is Cambridge and it’s me, Hanadi, the rules have changed”. While some people may take this as a surprise, and some even complain about it, rules change all the time in real life and there is no way to escape that. I call this Hanadi’s Law: “Rules can, and will, change”.
This line of thought brings up some interesting consequences. For instance, it shows that complying with rules just for the sake of compliance is not generally a useful strategy. You may be irrationally constraining yourself to a given model, which may be completely unsuitable for your situation.
As an example, not all advice dispensed by startup gurus and consultants will be applicable to your situation. Whatever is the current trend will eventually fall out of favour. History is full of stories of wrong predictions from experts and consultants. In fact, many successful businesses develop precisely in niches that experts have already neglected or dismissed. Therefore, I feel that all advice should be taken with a grain of salt.
I summarise all this in the motto: “advice is a trail, not a rail”.
In conclusion, I feel I have gained a lot of experience out of a single startup weekend, and I emphatically recommend anyone who is interested in gaining some insight into entrepreneurship to take part in events such as the one I attended.
Maybe more importantly, the greatest lesson I took from this event was that assuming a critical position, observing and drawing lessons from such events is crucial to avoid simple but crippling mistakes when starting your own business.
By A. Navarro