Pitt Center to Extend “Latest, Greatest” Market Approaches to Pittsburgh Area Small Businesses

Issue Date: 
March 28, 2016

The University of Pittsburgh’s Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence, part of the Innovation Institute, announced that it is one of only five winners of the “Lean for Main Street Training Challenge” competition by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). The competitive grant will enable the Institute’s Small Business Development Center (SBDC) to provide free, proven “lean business” training programs to Main Street small businesses and entrepreneurs. Lean methodology—which involves increased consumer feedback and adaption to it—has long proven popular in technology start-ups, driving companies from a traditional business plan to a more simplified, step-by-step approach. Through their designation as an official National Science Foundation I-Corps site, Pitt has already been offering this methodology to businesses.

“Pitt’s I-Corps team has used lean methodology with more than 100 teams on campus, helping lead to the commercialization of new technologies,” said Evan Facher, director of enterprise development at Pitt’s Innovation Institute. “Now, we will be able to transfer that knowledge to businesses throughout Western Pennsylvania and help them to target and expand their markets. It’s the latest and greatest approach to understanding how your company and its innovations fit into the marketplace.”

Pitt was officially designated as an NSF I-Corps program site about a year ago. That curriculum provides a framework of principles and practices that challenge conventional notions about business model planning. As a winner of the “Lean for Main Street Training Challenge,” Pitt staff members will work with I-Corps master trainers to learn how to adapt the curriculum for Western Pennsylvania businesses.

“We’ll be rolling out a pilot program, after we adapt the curriculum, to these Main Street businesses in late summer or early fall,” said Ray Vargo, director of the SBDC. “With technology and globalization, a business that may just have had a retail model now can offer products and services throughout the world. What we’re trying to do is have them start thinking about new markets so that their business remains viable.”

Pitt was awarded $25,000 to support travel expenses associated with the I-Corps program, adaptation and development of curriculum, and delivery of that curriculum. The SBA plans to leverage the adapted curricula from the five centers by making them available to all members of the SBA’s resource partner network.

“We’ll show businesses how to look at customers first and then to create a product to fit the need, instead of spending time to develop a product or service without knowing whether anyone really wants it,” Facher said. “It’s customer discovery—what’s in the marketplace, the competitive landscape—and then company development. We’ll coach people through that.”

Vargo said the pilot program will be geared toward a small number of businesses to start, possibly retail, construction, and service-based companies.

“We’re hoping to be able to present these traditional businesses of Main Street with new innovations, new strategies to use within their traditional business,” Vargo said. “We’re excited. We feel that historically there has been a lack of focus on these Main Street businesses, but they’re so important to our local economy. We want to make sure they receive cutting-edge information and best practices initiatives as well.”

SBA Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet said the lean methodology is focused on helping entrepreneurs “get the right things to the right place at the right time, while minimizing waste and maintaining flexibility.” The partnerships between I-Corps and this program will enable Pitt and the other grant winners to become experts, she said. “We’ll work closely with them as they adapt and deliver new variations of the program to targeted audiences in their regions.”