The Lean Canvas


Campus entrepreneurship programs have grown exponentially over the recent years.  In 1985, a small handful of colleges and universities offered entrepreneurship courses; by 2013, over 400,000 U.S. students were enrolled in courses and centers revolving around entrepreneurship.[i]

The IDEA Center at Notre Dame was formed to respond to the growing need for colleges and universities to serve as a bridge between nascent technology and existing market demand.  Standing for Innovation, De-Risking, and Enterprise Acceleration, the IDEA Center looks to bring the finest Notre Dame faculty, staff, and student ideas and innovations to market.  The IDEA Center is comprehensive in nature, encompassing all steps involved in taking an innovation on campus from the idea stage to an impact on society. 

The first step in the IDEA Center progression is the Commercialization Engine process.  At this stage, teams are brought together to take early-stage technologies through a process of evaluation and de-risking, transforming them into potentially life-changing and productive applications. 

The Commercialization Engine process is subdivided into three progressive stages, aptly titled after different engine sizes: 2-stroke, 4-cylinder, and V8.  The 2-stroke stage serves as an initial vetting of the technology.  If the technology passes the 2-stroke stage, teams will begin working it through the Lean Canvas Program.

Lean Canvas Program

The Lean Canvas Program is the first stage of transforming a technology into a product.  At this stage, teams will work through the necessary steps towards the goal of creating a scoping or product/prototype requirement document.  The Lean Canvas process focuses exclusively on problem-solution fit. The program aims to fill the fundamental gap between raw idea research and a viable product. 

To understand this concept further, consider recent research conducted by Clayton Christensen and collaborators for Harvard Business Review.  In “Know Your Customers’ ‘Jobs to Be Done,’” researchers discuss how organizations should focus on the “jobs” that need to be done in their customers’ lives.[ii]  The researchers use the term “jobs” to represent “what an individual really seeks to accomplish in a given circumstance.”  Their conclusion states that these customer goals are far more important than the underlying product characteristics, popular trends, or new technologies. 

The Lean Canvas Program operates under these guiding precepts.  People don’t buy technologies; they buy solutions to their problems.  The Lean Canvas Program is therefore centered on moving a raw technology towards its untapped commercial potential.  Indeed, the market tells us what they want out of technology—the Lean Canvas deliverable morphs the technology into the stated market demand. 

Lean Canvas Process and Final Deliverable

The Lean Canvas Program will last for seven weeks.  Throughout this time period, teams will be placed into cohorts to go through the 7-week LC1 process together.  Each team represents one Notre Dame technology or startup.  The LC1 will be further subdivided into three categories: Life Sciences, Engineering, and Software.  Overall, there will be 3 to 5 teams participating in each cohort.

The roles on the team will be separated as such:

  • Entrepreneurial Lead: Post-docs, M.B.A. students, ESTEEM students or potential management could fit this role.
  • Principal Investigator: The inventor of the technology.
  • Business Mentor: A stakeholder with industry experience that can provide warm leads within the target market for the technology.

Each cohort starts the Lean Canvas process with a two-day launch where all teams come together for an orientation.  After orientation is completed, teams will break off to start scoping out their respective deliverables.  In addition to the orientation event, there will be a weekly “throwdown” meeting for the entire duration of the program.  In these meetings, each team will report on their findings from the previous week. 

Every week, teams will have to talk to between 8 to 15 people in the target market about the technology.  The goal at this stage is to discern if the market wants this technology in its current form, or if modifications will need to be applied to mirror market demand more closely.  This is a critical step for the Business Mentor role as warm contacts in specific markets will be crucial to collecting an adequate sample size for feedback.

After these steps are concluded, teams are expected to produce a final deliverable.  Software teams will produce a scoping document to serve as a blueprint for software engineers to build, while engineering teams will produce a product/product requirement document to serve as a blueprint for an engineer to build the specific product.  If the steps are adhered to appropriately, these documents should serve as an important transition, taking a raw technology even closer to a market-based application.


Matt Gardner, the program manager and co-instructor, runs the Lean Canvas Program.  In addition to Matt, the program utilizes outside consultants for the role of “technologist.”  Each cohort will have a technologist who has launched multiple products in the subject area of the cohort’s expertise.  The respective technologist and program manager will help run the teams and serve as co-instructors together.

Start Dates and Steps Forward

The Engineering cohort will launch in July 2017. Shortly thereafter, the Software cohort will launch in August/September 2017, and the Life Sciences cohort will launch in January 2018.  If the technology successfully graduates from the LC1 stage, teams will be set up in a customized accelerator outside of the IDEA Center.  The accelerators have specialized cohorts specific to their industry—this can be considered the LC2 stage. 

The LC2 stage focuses on the rest of the Business Model Canvas, such as channel partner considerations and revenue streams.  If LC1 is the problem-solution stage, LC2 should be considered the business model stage. 

[i] Singer, N. (2016). Universities Race to Nurture Start-Up Founders of the Future. Retrieved 23 June 2017, from

[ii] Know Your Customers’ “Jobs to Be Done”. (2016). Harvard Business Review. Retrieved 23 June 2017, from