Entrepreneur returns to Cornell to teach importance of customer connection
There’s one key factor that separates most commercially successful technologies from the technologies that fall by the wayside: their capacity to meet the needs of real customers.That’s why Andrea Ippolito ’06, M.Eng. ‘07, is passionate about helping innovators learn from the customers who might use their products. In her work with the White House, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, MIT’s H@cking Medicine and her own startup (Smart Scheduling, acquired by Athena Health) Ippolito has facilitated countless interactions between innovators and the people they serve.
Now, Ippolito is teaching the next generation of entrepreneurs about the importance of connecting with customers as a new member of the Upstate New York NSF I-Corps Node (UNY I-Corps) teaching team, offering her expertise to Ithaca innovators looking to bring their ideas to market. She’s also the new executive director of Cornell Engineering’s Master in Engineering Management degree.
Ippolito began her academic career at Cornell as an undergraduate in biological engineering. After staying for her master’s degree in biomedical engineering, she worked as a scientist for Boston Scientific and eventually enrolled in another master’s program in systems design and management at MIT. While working toward her third degree, she became involved with a number of organizations that established business competitions and hackathons in the Boston area and internationally.
“Oftentimes with hackathons, you’ll have a room full of truly incredible engineers and developers and they’re very focused on building ‘the thing’ as quickly as possible,” she noted. The health care hackathons she helped to organize, however, were different. In them, she and her team paired engineers and developers with designers, patients, clinicians and other related stakeholders so the product could be best tailored to the needs of users. These groups didn’t just create “the thing,” but carefully assessed the problem and the groups involved.
“That was a lesson to me that you can’t just build things for the sake of building them. You need to do it with a diverse team and you need to do it in collaboration, co-designing with your customers,” said Ippolito.
Ippolito didn’t only help run hackathons – she participated in them. In 2012 she co-founded Smart Scheduling, a medical technology startup born out of a hackathon. The company was later acquired by Athena Health.
As she advanced in her career, Ippolito became increasingly aware of, and intrigued by, the entrepreneurial ecosystem budding at Cornell. “I was just really inspired by what was happening here,” she explained. Cornell’s related assets were some of the major factors that caught her eye: “there’s a community, there’s a foundation, there are unbelievable engineers and scientists.”
Before she’d return to Ithaca, however, Ippolito would go on to apply her expertise in a more unexpected environment: the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
Her involvement at the VA began as a part of the Presidential Innovation Fellowship Program, which places experienced engineers and designers in government agencies to use tech solutions to improve operations.
There, Ippolito co-designed the VA Innovators Network, a program that helps VA employees work directly with veterans to test ideas that could impact the veteran community at large. The program provided support for innovators developing new information technology systems, devices and operational procedures, and helped connect them to stakeholders who could provide feedback and insight.
Once the Innovators Network was established and growing, Ippolito found her opportunity to come back to the East Hill. “It was time to really think about the next stage of my career and how to get involved with this incredible Cornell ecosystem,” she said.
All of Ippolito’s experiences thus far have given her ample knowledge to help her mentor entrepreneurs as they locate customers, conduct interviews and use their findings to improve their products and services.
Ippolito helps teach the I-Corps short course, a two-week program for innovators looking to ensure that their product meets the needs of target customers. She says she’s excited to serve this entrepreneurial community.
“In modern times right now,” she concluded, “the last thing we need is technology for technology’s sake. We need solutions that can solve real problems.”
To find out more about the I-Corps program contact Shannon Sullivan at [email protected].