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Learning Lean: How an innovative new entrepreneurship course is shaking up the classroom

- January 8, 2013

Mary Kilfoil (second from left) working with students on projects in the Starting Lean course. (Nick Pearce photo)
Mary Kilfoil (second from left) working with students on projects in the Starting Lean course. (Nick Pearce photo)

After the holidays, “thinking lean” often takes the form of a New Year’s resolution. But a class of Dal students were thinking lean all last semester as part of an innovative new course in the Faculty of Management.

Starting Lean, developed at Dalhousie by profs Mary Kilfoil and Ed Leach, uses the Lean Launchpad model developed by Steve Blank and Gerry Engle at the University of California (Berkley).  

“It’s really about market validation and customer discovery,” says Dr. Kilfoil, noting that this version of the course extended from a SSHRC research project that she and Dr. Leach worked on.

“Market validation is about getting out of the building to understand demand and supply. It’s about gaining a firsthand understanding of customers’ needs and wants, what is already available in the marketplace, market channels and strategic partners, etc., that allow startups to better understand their business model and make the necessary pivots along the way.”

This may seem like common sense looking at it from the outside, but it’s not the sort of approach that’s been typically emphasized in business education. Likewise, the course structure itself is unconventional, using a flipped classroom where students attend their lectures online prior to class, conduct market validation and then apply what they learn through weekly in-class presentations based on developing their business model canvas. The online classes are hosted on a MOOC (massive open online course) platform called Udacity.

“The course is designed such that the students have an opportunity to apply what they learn both inside and outside the classroom,” says Dr. Kilfoil. “The focus is really on gaining a firsthand understanding of the market and applying it to their business model."

Startup savvy

Starting Lean was open to students who had a business idea they wanted to develop and included students from engineering, neuroscience, computer science, science and business, offered as a credited course towards their degree.

The teams of four were comprised of students from a variety of disciplines who were unknown to each other prior to the class. For example, Shea Kewin, a Management undergrad, came up with the concept of an enhanced performance knee brace and was joined by doctoral students Bob Garrish (Mechanical Engineering) and Chris Cowper-Smith (Neuroscience) to form the Spring Loaded team.

Cowper-Smith says the diversity of expertise and backgrounds were key to helping build their business concept. “My research is actually focused on the movement of the body in space,” he says. “There is a nice link between my research interests and the brace."

“The most value I got from the Starting Lean course was the opportunity to get in the same room with people with very diverse backgrounds,” he adds.

Nada Ibrahim, a Bachelor of Management student, teamed up with two other students in the class to create Frog Jobs, a Facebook application where users would post odd jobs for students to apply for.

“It was super hands-on,” she says of the class format. “It was a real-life, real-time experience.”

Connor Bell, a third-year Computer Science student, worked with his group to develop Execute Skate, a skateboarding accessory that he says, “brings Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater to the real world.” He says the course was vital in his idea’s development.

“It would have been a long process of two years of me doing it completely wrong [without the class],” he says.

Teaming up

Bell appreciated the collaborative opportunities the course offered. “In our group we have a designer, a programmer, and two business students who are really good at customer development and marketing," he says. "It’s a good mix of discovery and execution: they figure out what’s awesome and then we implement it.”

That collective expertise is enhanced by external mentors who provide students real-world insight, like Jules Fauteux from Talentlogic and Ben Garvey from Enginuity.

“The mentors are from the start-up community in Halifax including engineering firms, tech start-ups, angel investors, and business advisors,” explains Dr. Kilfoil. “These are people who have a great desire to give back and work with students.”

“I think the course, the way it’s set up around the Lean Launchpad, is amazingly unique,” says Garvey. “There’s a dynamism, an energy, a fire there among the students who come into this class that’s palatable.”

From the classroom to the real world

Bell, who is also an app developer, credits Starting Lean with teaching him the fundamentals of business and marketing strategies that directly apply to his interests.

“I use this course every day to apply to new ideas. With this course I didn’t need to take a minor in business. All I needed was this one course to figure out whether a product is worth making.”

Ibrahim said that Starting Lean is her favourite course she's taken at Dal because it changed her perspective on the business world.

“If all classes were like [Starting Lean], that would be the ideal way to learn and have the best university experience.”

The course is already paying off for many of the students. As of last month, two of the teams have been accepted in the five-month Propel ICT Launch 36 accelerator program, and three have received offers of development money and/or angel investment. As well, three students from the class — Cam MacDonald, Zach levy and Daniel Bartek — were accepted into the Next 36 accelerator program for young entrepreneurs.


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