I had dinner with Kurt Loheit last night, and as always I left with a lot of mental cogs whirring. I met him years ago through trailwork, his pioneering efforts building bike trails earnt him a place in the mountain bike hall of fame. He’s also an actual rocket scientist, and has been an internal entrepreneur at a large aeronautics firm for the last 30 years. When we sat down to discuss my new venture I knew he’d have a lot of insights.
He spends a lot of time trying to evaluate engineers’ ideas for funding, working almost as an internal VC, and he shared one of his essential tools with me. It’s a very simple idea, a series of basic questions based on Heilmeier’s Catechism. Answering them forces someone to break their technical focus and think about the bigger picture. The real value is that the answers form a pretty strong overview of the strengths and weaknesses of your idea, so you can evaluate your own proposals before you try and pitch them to a gatekeeper like a VC or someone internal who controls resources. Their simplicity and the structure makes it a lot harder to get lost in the details of your idea, which is always my temptation as an engineer.
- What are you trying to do?
- How does this get done at present and by whom?
- What are the limitations of the present approaches and what are the metrics?
- What is new about our approach?
- What is the key technology or concept that now makes this idea work?
- Why do we think we can be successful and what are your key assumptions about the external environment?
- Who is the customer and what is the market for the idea?
- If we succeed, what difference do we think it will make?
- How long do we think it will take to develop proof of principle?
- What are our midterm and final exams to see how we are doing?
- How much do we think it will cost to develop the concept through proof of principle?
- (For new ideas before a research project has begun: How much do we think it will cost and how long to develop a seedling (i.e. understand idea, metrics and develop concept briefing).