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Steve Blank and the Dalhousie entrepreneurship revolution
Steve Blank delivers his commencement address to BComm, MES and MREM students (Danny Abriel photo)
“Most revolutions are not obvious when they happen.”
When Steve Blank spoke these words in his 2017 commencement address to graduates of the Faculty of Management, he was talking about a revolution in communication, interaction and networking that is “unique in the history of our species.”
He could just as easily have been talking about his own influence on entrepreneurship education at Dalhousie and on the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Atlantic Canada.
Steve Blank is a serial Silicon Valley entrepreneur, educator and author. You could say he literally wrote the book on modern startups: The Four Steps to the Epiphany is credited with launching the experiential, customer-focused Lean Startup movement. On May 30, Dalhousie University awarded Steve Blank an honorary doctorate.
Lean Startup includes the simple but groundbreaking idea that aspiring entrepreneurs need to “get out of the building” and actually talk to the people whose problems they’re trying to solve: customers. Experimentation, customer feedback and going back to the drawing board until you get it right—these proven practices build strong and adaptable startups.
Blank’s work has changed how startups are built, how entrepreneurship is taught around the world and how the U.S. government innovates. Named to the Thinkers50 list of top management thinkers and recognized by the Harvard Business Review as one of 12 Masters of Innovation, Blank is Senior Fellow for Entrepreneurship at Columbia University. He teaches at Stanford, UC Berkeley, Columbia and NYU.
Five years ago, Dr. Mary Kilfoil, Academic Lead for Dalhousie’s Starting Lean Initiative, and Dr. Edward Leach, Director of the Norman Newman Centre for Entrepreneurship, attended Blank’s first Lean Launchpad Educators Program at UC Berkeley. When they got back, Dal’s Starting Lean course was born. Open to all disciplines, the class is an entrepreneurship lab with all the pressures and demands of an early stage startup.
When the Lean approach took root at Dalhousie, a revolution grew.
“What Mary and Ed built is pretty spectacular, from nothing,” says Blank. “I gave them a set of tools that helps reduce the risk of early-stage failure, and they took it from there.”
In Halifax, Blank met with students, faculty members and government officials. What he saw and heard will stick with him for a long time. “I’m going to be thinking about Halifax and Dal a lot more!” he laughs. “When you see it in person, you become emotionally attached as well as intellectually attached.”
Kilfoil describes Blank’s approach as absolutely central to how entrepreneurship and innovation are taught and practiced at Dal today. “Steve’s work helps students and researchers at every level understand early that they need to be solving a real problem and they need to identify who their customers are. This is critical to companies having the resilience to launch and builds in flexibility so they don’t get blindsided or disrupted.”
"I was impressed with the enthusiasm of the Dal entrepreneurs inside the university and in the greater ecosystem,” says Blank, “and I’ve been blown away by how many interesting science things have come out of the Dal incubator. It’s on par with what I’ve seen at big research universities in the U.S.” He’s particularly taken with the oceans focus and believes that it could position the Atlantic provinces as a world leader in ocean technologies.
The rewards of bringing Steve Blank’s Lean principles to Dalhousie have been exceptional. “Lean changed everything for us, not just the curriculum. It changed how we designed the extracurricular pieces like the accelerator,” explains Kilfoil. “We feed the entrepreneurial ecosystem.”
LaunchDal now includes the Starting Lean and Innovation programs, Canada's Business Model Competition, LaunchPad Accelerator and Collider collaboration space. The list of world-class Dal-launched companies is growing: Analyze Re analytics for reinsurances and our first exit to an American publicly traded company; Spring Loaded Technology bionic knee braces; Site 2020 digital flagging system; Affinio marketing intelligence platform; Axem Neurotechnology wearable tech for athletes; Iconic Brewing.
For Blank, “insatiable curiosity” is the hallmark of great entrepreneurs. “If you’re curious, you’re always going to be asking new questions: Where did the data come from? Is this true or false? Is someone trying to sell me something or get me to do something? Who’s behind this? Why? We use the term critical thinking a lot in schools, but we don’t really know what it is. If we want to survive as individuals, and not just as clickbait for others, we have to think about this.”
Reflecting on the time Steve Blank spent in Halifax, Kilfoil remains exhilarated. “I’m still pinching myself. I couldn’t believe that he was actually here! It was our chance to say a big thank-you because he changed everything about the way we teach entrepreneurship and provide experiential learning. It actually builds a talent pool, and our business as a university is building knowledge and creating talent.”
Dalhousie Innovation Fellow Yaser Alkayale converses with Blank at a reception for LaunchDal students and alumni (GOSKY Production Media photo)
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