The Challenge of Product-Market Fit: Microdyne Robotics

Microdyne Robotics was a member of the second cohort of the Penn I-Corps Accelerator Program, hosted by the Penn Center for Innovation in spring 2016. We asked the founders to reflect on the program, and how it helped their startup grow.

By Elizabeth Hunter ENG’13/GR’19, Denise Wong GR’17, and Edward Steager, Co-founders of Microdyne Robotics

Microdyne Robotics is a company founded with the broad vision of automated manipulation of objects at length scales less than 100 microns, generally smaller than the width of a hair. We’re interested in applying new discoveries and techniques that we develop in the lab to problems such as biological cell sorting, targeted drug delivery, and fine-scale force microscopy. We use arrangements of electromagnets to manipulate microfabricated, magnetic robots that are controlled using visual feedback, typically using a microscope as an interface.

Microbots schematic
Microbot schematic

It likely goes without saying that our product is not just a new twist on an established business model, and our intention before we started was—in the most general way—to use the I-Corps program to help us understand some methods to move forward. Technology companies such as ours don’t simply start selling products and find themselves in the black.

The I-Corps program is useful in terms of applying established start-up frameworks for entrepreneurs, particularly in terms of determining if there really is a strong fit for the founders’ concept, or if the vision needs adjustment. One of the principle components of the program is the interview. Through the program, we made several contacts in related fields to find a good fit for our ideas. The challenge for Microdyne was, and still is, complicated by the fact that the capabilities we develop involve a nontrivial level of explanation. In fact, many of our interviewees took some convincing that the capabilities were real!

One of our early hypotheses about our technology was that it would most likely be applicable in research labs. As such, we wrestled throughout the program with the issue that we were working with a fundamentally limited total available market. However, optimists that we are, we approached our interviews with the knowledge that there are several other successful start-ups that are focused exclusively on the research market and that larger markets are nearly impossible to guess without sufficient legwork.

We learned quickly that finding a good product-market fit would not be trivial, as we were often referred to other labs or companies who perhaps would have a need. Only as we neared the end of the I-Corps program did we start to discover the fields that would be likely customers for our tools.

The Microdyne Biotics team.
The Microdyne Robotics team.

It’s important to note that the design of the I-Corps program is intentionally lean in terms of required company resources. We could have started the company with a defined, incorrect vision which was not market tested. We could have invested significant money in a product that did not have customers. Instead, we asked several uncomfortable questions to get an idea of where we best fit, or if we fit at all.

Currently, we’re further investigating a particular market segment that holds promise, as well as developing hardware customized to needs expressed in our interviews. Given that we’re still at a very early stage, we’ll plan on pursuing the national I-corps program to further vets our ideas and/or apply for NSF SBIR funding.