What is Inovo Studio?

by Kent Lyons, May '22

After leaving my job this past spring, I spent some time reflecting on what I want to do next. What problems do I want to solve? How do I want to spend my time? In doing so I came back to an older idea I've had for awhile. What if I finally started a startup studio? This is Inovo Studio. The very short version is Inovo Studio works on commercializing research. But the how and the why have some nuance.

So to answer the question of what I'm doing now, we need to backtrack some. What is a startup studio? And why am I interested in that? The idea behind a startup studio is somewhat related to a startup incubator. The intention is to create several companies in succession. From a startup perspective this makes sense as it is basically impossible to predict success of any one startup. So by creating a portfolio, the hope is that (at least) one will become a home run. This is fundamentally the model used by venture capital. There is still a lot of filtering done before even those bets are placed, but they are bets knowing the odds are not great for any one.

Incubators (and VC money) are looking to deploy capital on founders and/or companies. They are not in the business themselves of actually taking a possible business or product and developing it. And this is a key difference with the studio model. Instead of casting a net out to the world, looking for applicants with possible ventures, a startup studio is built to create and test those ventures internally. As they look promising they are spun out, turning into startups, and from that point on follow a more or less traditional startup path. Many might only have modest success, but hopefully a few succeed in significant ways.

But why bother doing such internal development? Why not just cast a net out wide and see what you can catch like the traditional venture model? This is where my research background comes into play. After being in corporate research for nearly 15 years, I've seen the challenges faced in the adoption of that research from many different perspectives. The Valley of Death - the gap between research and product - is very real. There is a longer story here which I'll detail at another time, but I think critically looking at the intention and value of corporate research is useful. And upon reflecting on that, we can see some paths that are hopefully less likely to fail for structural reasons, or in turn, some paths more likely to succeed.

The resources devoted to corporate research are non trivial. Silicon valley employees are way more expensive than grad students! The business models around corporate research vary from company to company. But to oversimplify, the research is there to create new opportunities for the business. There are some core technical areas of interest, core business problems, or the threat from competition that drives the company to innovate with research. And as a researcher in that setting, as long as one's interests more or less align, there is an excellent opportunity to push the state of the art forward.

However to what end? What does a successful outcome look like from a business perspective? The company doesn't care about papers (which is the currency of research) except maybe as a brand/publicity/recruiting play. They can't monetize papers directly. With the papers likely comes patents. Depending on the company those may or may not be monitized. (If they are, it's likely in the form of standards and cross licensing deals which rapidly moves outside the realm of research).

What about the research products themselves? In one scenario, the results of the research are directly in line with the current business goals and practices. The research offers a "better" (as defined by the business and it's value chain) product. These research results are the easiest to consume since there is good alignment as perceived from the product side (not as told from the research side). The challenge here is the product folks already have an infinitely long backlog of tickets to work through - new features, bugs, etc. Finding the resources to take the research results and plug them into the current product is non-trival. But at least there is alignment.

While a researcher might be interested in going off into a certain direction, the good ones are also true scientists. And as a scientist they are not looking for a specific answer. The research will lead where the research leads and that may not result in something of value to the business as it stands today. And while there might be a lot of talk about investing in the future, a company has a lot of mechanisms in place to really focus on the needs of the business today.

So what of these other research results? The ones that could lead to adjacent business opportunities, new ways to conceive of and apply a product, or even research that results in world changing new products, say the next iPhone? Well they are likely dead on arrival. As Clay Christensen articulated, the immune system of the current business (and again it's associated supply chain) kicks in and squashes these new ideas. This is true even for companies desperate to reinvent themselves with strong support from senior leadership (I was at Nokia working on such things when the iPhone was rapidly scaling). The challenge isn't actually a technical or engineering challenge. It's actually an organizational one. So is that research doomed to die? Well not if there is a legitimate path for creating new products and associated businesses. And this points back to the startup studio model.

A research based startup studio could develop similar work as a corporate research lab. It would conducted applied research in a few key areas of interest. And when new results are found that look promising, and that the researchers believe in, instead of trying to sell them back into a corporate parent that doesn't know what to do with them, they are instead spun out. By being spun out they can decouple from the parent organization in key ways (again see Christensen's work for more details). And the success or failure of the new research can be born out in the market as opposed to endless meetings inside a big company. (I do think this could work within a large corporation, and if anyone is interested I'd be happy to talk more about it. But that is a separate discussion from this one).

Inovo studio is my answer for taking this promising research and giving it life. We conduct research into novel interactive technologies (my research area of expertise and interest) and as new ideas are encountered, we do the work to test the market to see if they are viable. And if the signs are promising, we spin out the work into a new company. And then rinse and repeat with the next research results. There may be adjacent areas that we venture into as well - we will see where there is the most traction and value. But the inspiration behind Inovo Studio is to create a new path for bringing research into the world.

Inovo Studio right now is bootstrapping this model. I believe there is a gap here, but some more initial evidence would be useful (the scientist in me!). And this is my main focus. However, to help scale up the research front, I'm also interested in partnering with researchers on their research which might be adjacent to my own and where I might be able to contribute in a meaningful way. If that research seems promising, it might funnel into Inovo Studio in a way similar to described above. Only instead of the research being fully created within the studio, we would do the work jointly. Or said another way, we are not looking for ideas to commercialize. But instead we are interested in working researchers that believe in their early research results and want to try taking it out into the world. At CHI I chatted with several folks that see a gap here as well. So if this might be you, or you know of a student, post doc or prof interested in do such work, please reach out!