Opportunity Recognition

Customer Discovery, Ideation Techniques, & More

Are you interested in engaging your students in opportunity recognition? Read on for a curated set of cards that includes customer discovery, recognizing societal trends, and ideation techniques.

Opportunity Recognition

by Mike Rust, Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Western New England University

“…and that’s an overview of the low-cost hematocrit measurement system we developed this year. What do you think?” 

I pause for a second. I want to give the deep-pocketed angel investor, who is standing in front of my poster, a chance to gather his thoughts. After all, I’ve just spent the past 7 minutes going over the wonderful new technology my students and I have developed. I’m sure he wants to ask me a detailed question about our data analysis methods. Or our projected battery lifetime for field deployment. I’m ready for those questions. 

I take a sip of water, and straighten my tie. Let’s do this. 

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“Cool project,” he says. His eyes scan across the poster again. “But can you answer one question for me?” 

“Sure,” I reply. “Fire away.” 

This is a good sign. Angel investment, here we come! 

“What’s hematocrit?” 

The sound you are hearing is my investment pitch going down in flames.

What happened

Let me explain. I’ve just spent the last 7 minutes talking about an exciting new technology we developed, including our R&D effort and results from our early prototypes. Pretty reasonable things for an engineer to talk about when sharing their work, no doubt. 

 But I have failed at the most basic aspect of this presentation, in a painfully embarrassing way: I did not consider my audience. 

 I forgot that hematocrit is a fairly technical term, one that would resonate with folks in the healthcare space (such as biomedical engineers), but not the general public. It refers to how much of a patient’s blood volume is composed of red blood cells, and is helpful in diagnosing a variety of conditions such as anemia. But I skipped all of that, and jumped straight into the technology. 

So the deep-pocketed angel investor had literally no idea what I was talking about for the past several minutes. And more to the point, he had no idea why I was working on this project.

Why didn’t I tell him about the prevalence of anemia worldwide, and the challenges that make it difficult to measure hematocrit in low-resource environments? Or why our low-cost approach could be useful in lowering the burden of disease felt by communities in Central America, where I do a lot of my field work? I mean, that’s why I was working on the project. Shouldn’t I have started there? And why didn’t I talk about the opportunity that this project could provide for the angel investor’s portfolio, should he choose to invest. After all, that’s why HE is here at this conference. 

So yeah, that pitch didn’t go so well.
 

Opportunity Recognition

I think about this failure (a lot), and refer to it regularly when helping students prepare for their own presentations. 

“Don’t do what I did,” I tell them. “Know your audience, and communicate your work in a way that will resonate with them. Because you never know when you’ll get a few minutes with a deep-pocked investor, and you want to be ready to take that opportunity.” 

But this failure also serves as a reminder to me about opportunity recognition.

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How do we train our students (and ourselves) to identify opportunities? 


How do we communicate the value of those opportunities in both economic terms and societal benefits? 

Opportunity recognition is a key aspect of the entrepreneurial mindset. In addition to the technical skills we cultivate in our students, we want to foster their mindset to be value creators

This is especially true in a dynamic, ever-changing world, where engineers must be agile in anticipating meeting needs - customer, societal, and more.

Try These Activities & Projects

Are you interested in engaging your students in opportunity recognition? We’ve curated a set of cards that use this approach across a variety of engineering courses and topics. Feel free to implement these ideas immediately, or put your own spin on them to make them fit your courses and activities.

Opportunity Recognition Resources

Opportunity Recognition Resources

This is a Card Deck with links to a bunch of resources related to opportunity recognition. Examples include customer discovery, value propositions, and customer interviews.
Generating New Ideas Based on Societal Needs and Business Opportunities

Generating New Ideas Based on Societal Needs and Business Opportunities

This module developed at the University of New Haven introduces students to a number of methods that can lead to new business ventures. Examples include recognizing societal trends and market gaps, and discovering novel ways to address them.
Ideation Techniques: Introductory Videos

Ideation Techniques: Introductory Videos

The University of Dayton developed a series of short videos to introduce opportunity recognition and ideation techniques for supercharging projects. Accompanying materials for deployment in classroom settings are also included.
Ideation Toolkit

Ideation Toolkit

This Card Deck is an ideation toolkit with links to a variety of resources on the topic of opportunity recognition. Examples include painstorming, biomimicry, bisociation, and more!

About the Author

Mike Rust

Mike Rust, Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Western New England University

Mike looks to address complex challenges facing our world today and in the future. Things like global health and lab-on-a-chip get him REALLY excited! He gets to help train and work alongside the next generation of problem solvers as they embark on their emerging careers.

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