What Stanford's Startup Garage Teaches Us About Invention and Innovation

Stanford's Startup Garage gives students a chance to identify a customer pain point, design a solution, and develop a business that supports its creation and launch. Sound familiar?

Like so many important lessons, Stefanos Zenios learned the difference between innovation and invention in the classroom. But that wasn’t the Stanford professor’s original goal.

Ten years ago, Zenios got interested in experiential learning for multi-disciplinary teams. The result was a course in which groups of medical school student were tasked with inventing something—usually some sort of device—to fill a medical need. But they couldn’t stop there.

The teams also had to think about how they might bring their ideas to a commercial market. "I realized there was distinction between the invention part of the process of designing something new, and the part where you ask ‘How do I make this invention available to a wide audience,’" Zenios tells Fast Company.

Much like innovation itself, Zenios’ conclusion isn’t new. Some of the greatest innovations of our time weren’t original ideas, rather they built on an existing idea in a different way. However, his eureka moment helped shape that class and led the way for a new approach to teaching entrepreneurship. Stanford's Startup Garage (so named because the space looks like a garage, according to Zenios) is aimed at offering students a chance to identify a customer pain point, design a solution, and develop a business that supports its creation and launch.

Is having the whole startup experience as a mock exercise really valuable in the real world? Zenios contends that it is. "Real ideas come out of the classroom every year," he asserts, and students are encouraged to seek funding for their startups from angel and venture capital investors.

What does this mean for you? Fast Company asked Zenios to share a bit of the wisdom he’s imparted and experienced while working with the student teams. No SAT or prerequisite courses required.

Toss Out the Word "Disruptive"

Entrepreneurs fond of using the word "disruptive" to sell their business plan, take heed. You don’t need to turn an industry on its ear to create a product or service that captivates the market. And you could speed up customer buy-in. "I hate the word 'disruptive,'" Zenios says. Working on a hypothesis that 95% of innovations are not disruptive, Zenios posits that most successful ones are merely incremental.

"My favorite example is from the medical field," Zenios explains. When angioplasty was invented to avoid more invasive bypass surgery, two companies were competing in the space. One captured 90% of the marketshare, not because they invented angioplasty itself, but because they designed an interface for the scope that was more user-friendly. "The whole point is find an unmet need and address it. If you can address it by building incrementally or with something your customers are already using or already used to, you won’t get resistance," Zenios says.

Collaboration at the Core

"Some of the greatest inventions are not new ideas, they are two old ideas coming together for the first time," says Zenios. Though he admits the stakes are not high in the classroom, "They get their course credit and move on," he explains, and Zenios has seen how desk-side differences can play together to move ideas forward.

"Ninety-five percent of research is not useful," Zenios maintains," It’s the underlying discipline and tools that can be useful in ways you can’t imagine." Bringing people together with different ideas and skills is a must, he says, but the challenge is the team dynamic, especially when they come from different perspectives and have different values. "Technology alone will not drive the solution," he underscores. Successful innovation springs from marrying the skills of engineers and others who are more attuned to customer needs. Successful companies are at the intersection where design thinking meets business thinking.

No Fear

As in life and business, there is no A+ for a course like this. It doesn’t matter if the student doesn’t create a viable business, says Zenios, it matters that they learned from the experiments. "We ask them to define what tests they are going to run and what type of results they expect," he explains. Then they can determine whether they are digging deep enough to get to solutions. That and they have to go out and ask customers what they thought of the product.

Collecting feedback is a way to discover if the customer finds the idea valuable enough to buy in, says Zenios. Some students expect things are going to fail. Others learn through the process that the startup life is not for them. "We had a great team, two cofounders raised funding and they had customers using the product," Zenios recalls. "One decided it was too much and took a ‘safe’ job. You can’t teach resilience and drive."

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  • Lesley Beth

    I've learned from this! I have new arts integrated program for kindergarten that variously I have described as 'disruptive', a 'new paradigm',  and innovative etc whereas Stefanos Zenios is right - it's really incremental - taking traditional early childhood classroom activities, and through its interactive program of music, movement and creative games, it enhances and reinforces the literary skills expected of kindergarten and grade one students today.  Thank you Stefanos - and I think I could do with more of your help beyond this excellent insight!