Educator and entrepreneur Stephen Sauer really knows how to talk — and how to listen. As an I-Corps instructor, he’s helping other scientists learn how doing both will help them understand who needs their technology solution and why.
Sauer is a senior lecturer and Entrepreneur in Residence at Cornell University’s S.C. Johnson College of Business, as well an Entrepreneur in Residence at Rev: Ithaca Startup Works and Cornell’s College of Engineering. His research and teaching activities focus on issues of leadership, entrepreneurship, team process, and diversity in management.
He studied Aeronautical Engineering and served for seven years as an Armored Cavalry Officer in the United States Army before heading to Cornell, where he earned his MBA and Ph.D. in Organizational Management. He is also the co-founder of Pi Experiential Learning, an NSF-funded startup that offers management and leadership education to help participants learn about themselves, how they work with others, and how they can grow as members of a team.
Sauer joined the UNY I-Corps ecosystem in March 2020, when he led a regional course designed for Ph.D. candidates participating in Cornell Engineering’s Commercialization Fellowship program. In the time since, he has taught three more Cornell University regional courses, as well as a regional course hosted by the University of Pittsburgh. Steve has also served as an I-Corps Mentor and as an Adjunct Instructor in the NSF I-Corps Teams national program.
In his free time, Sauer enjoys woodworking and is an avid runner — he’s completed nearly 20 marathons. We recently sat down with Steve to learn more about his time as an I-Corps instructor, and the lessons he hopes to impart on participants.
Q: Why did you want to become an I-Corps instructor?
Stephen Sauer: I’ve spent the past 15 years or so in academia, conducting research on leadership and team dynamics, with a particular focus on creativity and innovation in teams. I’ve also taught dozens of business school courses and workshops in those areas, but I had started to feel like my research and teaching were half a step removed from real-world application. Working with teams in the I-Corps program, I’ve been able to close that gap, and it’s very exciting and rewarding to be able to see theory put into practice as these budding entrepreneurs set off on their startup journey.
Q: What one piece of advice do you have for new entrepreneurs?
SS: I cannot overstate the importance of talking to people — not at them — and really listening to what they have to say. Before you ever start talking to venture capitalists and would-be investors, you’ll want to talk to a LOT of other people first: tech experts, potential team members, advisors, industry experts, and most of all, customers. No one cares about your big idea unless it solves some problem for them, so you really need to understand the problem, and that means listening.
Q: Of the startup teams you have instructed, are there any success stories that come to mind? Where is/are those team(s) now?
SS: I only started teaching in the I-Corps program last year, so I haven’t seen anyone yet who has moved far enough along the path to building a successful business, but there are a few people out there who have grown their teams and applied for NSF Small Business Innovation Research grants and other funding sources and appear to be well on their way. Check in with me again in six months or so…
Q: After learning about so many different customer markets, can you share a market or customer problem that still requires a solution/has great demand?
SS: There are a multitude of problems that are just waiting for innovative solutions, from the huge issues like climate change and healthcare to the little annoyances that we all deal with every day, like synching all of our streaming TV services or getting through airport security with our dignity intact. There will always be an opportunity as long as people have something to fret about or roll their eyes at.