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Denmark's Design-Driven Incubator:
Three Takeaways From the First Years

17. May 2022

After running Innofounder Graduate, a design-driven incubator for early-stage businesses, for nearly five years, we’ve learned a few things about design-driven entrepreneurship and how startups can adapt to this mindset. Here are three key lessons for startups, designers, and anyone interested in building an impactful business

Long reads

By Mia Steentoft, John Lynch & Christian Bason

Innofounder Graduate: A Design-Driven Program for Startups

In 2017, the Innofounder Graduate startup incubator evolved into a “design-driven” program operated by the Danish Design Center. On a 12-month cycle, every six months, the program gathers the best Danish graduate startups. Since its inception, more than 200 startup founders have participated in the program.  

Innofounder is committed to a design-driven approach that integrates learning, testing, and iteration across every aspect of startups. And, of course, it entails a significant focus on impact and emphasis on people and the planet. This involves utilizing design tools and approaches to make the invisible visible, such as user needs, business ecosystems, and supply chains.

Each cohort starts with facilitated design exercises during the first “Kick-off Bootcamp.” This allows them to deconstruct their business proposition, beginning with the “Business Model Canvas” and identifying assumptions.  

During the 12-month Innofounder journey, each startup engages with a design mentor familiar with their objectives, who helps them apply the introduced design skills.

Learning 1: Culture Eats Strategy  

Even at the early stages of a company, startup culture significantly impacts team behavior, and many founders are unaware of the pressure they place on their team and themselves. The pressure to sell their ideas, defend against criticism, perform, make sacrifices, and, above all, the pressure to attract investment.   

Our first five years of experience with the design approach have shown that founders are more aware of their response to these pressures and are less prone to the frantic “sell, sell, sell” mentality. Design helps founders become acutely aware of their most valuable asset; their time. From the beginning of the program, founders consistently tell us that design encourages prioritization by allowing teams to plan their time and focus on the most critical challenges. Simply put, the design approach forces a focus on “building the right thing” before “building the thing right.” 

Learning 2: Assumptions, Questions, and Insights

It’s pretty rare to find an early-stage company that doesn’t have assumptions that are integral to the company’s real-world potential. This involves assumptions related to the supply chain, materials, cybersecurity, or market fit. Also, it’s common for founders to assume that there is a need, but this is often limited to their friends and family.

Identifying such assumptions in startup culture isn’t always easy. Calling them out for what they are means showing insecurity or uncertainty, but as we’ve learned throughout the program, design methods enable founders to deal with these assumptions.

As an early component of the program, we help startup teams develop an exhaustive list of assumptions using the “Assumption Mapping Tool”. This refreshingly simple exercise identifies exactly where work needs to be done. These could be assumptions about the viability of a medical device in a hospital setting that can be reframed as a question and answered through research by doctors and hospital administrators. Most likely, this will result in a redesign of the features of the medical device, ultimately leading the founders to build the right thing. 

As an added bonus, mapping assumptions also fosters alignment within the startup. Based on feedback from our founders, we’ve discovered that these questions and actions have been influential in shaping the company’s direction.

Learning 3: Founders, Not Designers

Many of our founders are subject matter experts. They have huge talent and apply great academic expertise in diverse fields from computer science to biotechnology, just to name a few.  

In the first phase of the Innofounder Graduate program, startup founders receive expert-led training in design with prescriptive activities. For some, there has been a particularly big task in distinguishing between implementing design competencies as opposed to becoming a designer. Having put in years of effort in their field, these people want to become entrepreneurs and founders, not full-time designers.

Thus, we are no longer zealous about methods and tools. Our goal is to enable startups to understand the principles behind a design method or approach and empower them to develop their own approaches based on such principles.  

Five years into the program, we’ve learned a great deal, but a common denominator to all of the above is the importance of explaining “why” instead of just “what” when implementing a design tool or method. Throughout the program, mentors emphasize the rationale rather than simply dictating the next steps – and the founders are, of course, free to push back. In fact, some of the most exciting and valuable design tools are developed by the founders themselves.   

Ultimately, the power of these practices lies in making the invisible visible and highlighting opportunities and risks at an early stage.

Now what?

Today, we offer design thinking tools and practices that help founders learn, evaluate, and create sustainable businesses. In collaboration with designers, partners, and experts, we at DDC will continue exploring and testing a design-driven approach to working with startups and the startup ecosystem. 

We’re curious about how design methods and mindset can play a more prominent role in developing responsible early-stage circular, ethical, and socially responsible businesses. These are some of the design areas we will incorporate in Innofounder Graduate’s new big sister program, Innofounder.      

In becoming an impactful and responsible startup, we’ve found that one of the first steps is to look at your business critically and explicitly. While this can be a difficult thing to do, the Assumption Mapping Tool can provide you with an extra pair of eyes capable of making the invisible visible. Try out the tool here, and reach out to us if you have any eye-opening insights from your new spectacles.

Can’t get enough of design and innovation? We hear you. And we have you covered.

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