Jacob Babcock was about to get a great lesson in entrepreneurship, even if he didn’t realize it at the time. The future founder and CEO of NuCurrent graduated from Indiana University in 2004 and decided to get involved with Teach for America.
TFA is a national corps of recent college graduates who are asked to commit to two years of teaching in under-resourced urban and rural school districts.
“I was assigned a high school in Missouri that was by test scores, the worst high school in the state of Missouri,” Babcock says. “I was asked to teach business classes and was handed a curriculum a week before I was to start teaching.”
The curriculum was 12 pages that did not provide Babcock with a lot of information.
“The objectives were things like, ‘Students will use math to solve business problems,’” Babcock says. “I thought, hey, I can finish these objectives in a day. I’ll give my students a dollar and ask them to give 10 cents change. They just solved a business problem and that objective.”
All jokes aside, Babcock wanted to make an impact with his teaching. His idea was to have everyone in the class come up with a business plan and present it to their fellow students.
The students would collectively choose the one they felt was most promising and the classroom would become a business.
The decision was made to form a record label and the students learned about getting financing, meeting with key decision-makers and writing thank you notes.
“Then we raised the money,” Babcock says. “We got a recording studio to give us some inexpensive time. We had to get the talent to record it. By the end of the year, we launched a CD on both hard copy and iTunes. We had a CD release party at a Cardinals game. I was teaching the students, but I was learning all along.”
Eleven years later, the lessons Babcock learned through his teaching adventure are still proving to be useful.
Follow the market need
NuCurrent was born on the campus of Northwestern University. Babcock was on a team with six other grad students observing neurosurgeons at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
His team’s job was to identify problems with either the practice, techniques or instruments that were being used and come up with appropriate solutions.
“When we identified solutions, our job was to qualify the commercial opportunity with those solutions,” Babcock says. “Could we actually make a medical device product or company based on the solutions we found to a problem? That led us to focusing on wireless power for an implanted neurostimulation device.”
By the end of the class, the team had developed a proof of concept, presented it to the board of directors for the class and were told to go for it.
NuCurrent was launched 5½ years ago and has evolved to focusing on wireless power for consumer electronics.
“It’s just evolved based on that product market need and fit,” Babcock says. “A lot of it had to do with letting innovation guide what we did with the business, rather than letting a business model guide our innovation. We started developing wireless power for medical devices, but we really had a breakthrough in antennas for wireless power. They were good for medical devices, but they were really good for consumer electronics.”
The business is still small with five employees, but Babcock is quite optimistic about the potential to grow into a leading wireless power technology company.
“We’re already listed as one of the top 50 influencers in the world of wireless power,” Babcock says. “That’s not the end goal, just one of many. We’re looking to become the leading antenna technology provider for wireless power.”
Give them what they don’t know they want
The key to succeeding in the world of innovation is finding an area where there is a lot of demand, whether that demand is known or unknown.
“Apple was the classic case of this where Steve Jobs said, ‘I know what people want, even if they don’t,’” Babcock says. “Then he develops the iPhone with the touchscreen and it changes everything. You either need people who know they are looking for something and you can satisfy that with innovation, or your innovation is so revolutionary that they might not have even thought of it, but once they see it, they really want it.”
The next step is all the nuts and bolts of selling a product or service. How do you price it? How do you build it? Are you licensing something and if so, how do you license it?
“Those are more granular details and issues that you can look to classic business case studies and figure out how to do it,” Babcock says. “The big issue is if you have a real breakthrough, is it truly a breakthrough? And then secondarily, does anyone want it?”
Of course, the next breakthrough idea is always lurking around the corner. That’s what led Babcock and his team at NuCurrent to stretch beyond medical devices and into the world of consumer electronics.
“As long as you continue working and you have an open culture for innovation, you expect all the employees to be inventors,” Babcock says. “It’s not just the CTO who writes patents or disclosures. In fact, it’s not just the engineers.”
When you have non-engineers or people who are not experts in a particular field exploring opportunities, you often get great results.
“They aren’t constrained by some of the same bias and innate knowledge that engineers have,” Babcock says. “So they think of things from a different perspective and say, ‘Oh yeah, why don’t you just put that piece over there?’ An electrical engineering 101 textbook would never suggest that. But that’s the fun of people who are not engineers.” ●
How to reach: NuCurrent, (312) 575-0015 or www.nucurrent.com