Vanderbilt-Led NSF Regional I-Corps Program Takes on South by Southwest (SXSW)

The SXSW Ideator Regional I-Corps Program, founded on the Sullivan Family Ideator Program, took a diverse group of participants from the Vanderbilt community—students, faculty, staff, and alumni—and collaborators from our broader Mid-South I-Corps Hub Ecosystem, including the University of Virginia, Tennessee State University, and GEM Fellow participants, to this year’s South by Southwest Festival-a global nexus of creativity and technology.

Beyond merely participating in this event, this group brought with them a mission: to tap this diverse network of industries and leaders present at the festival to further refine their innovations. 

2024 SXSW Recap Video

A World of Customer Discovery

Among enjoying the entertainment and unique experiences SXSW had to offer, program participants were also tasked with collecting 50 customer discovery interviews for the week that were related to their respective ideas. They were encouraged to attend relevant sessions, networking events, and the plethora of experiences SXSW had to offer in order to refine their ideas.

The participants were looking to understand everything from the need for their innovations, to who their target customers may be, to pathways to eventually commercializing their innovations, such as funders and potential future partners. 

“I had the best time at SXSW with the Wond’ry," said GEM Fellow & Program Participant Jarrod Ronquillo. "They are subject matter experts in customer discovery and entrepreneurship. I learned so much from them and their support was incredibly motivating! I left this experience with confidence that I can go out and start my own company!”

Jarod Ronquillo with one of his interviewees
Jarod Ronquillo with one of his interviewees.

Learning to Think like Business-Builders:

At the end of each day, program participants would gather together to learn new concepts and methods from established entrepreneurs who had seen success commercializing their businesses. They were also given the opportunity to have group-centered, and one on one mentorship sessions with I-Corps Regional Instructors, giving them the opportunity to bring their findings to the table to share, and bounce the ideas off of one another. 

“My time at SXSW was completely transformative", commented program participant Sitwat Atiq. "I particularly appreciated our office hours with the mentors after sessions because as an innovator and entrepreneur, it was invaluable to be surrounded by established individuals who had relevant first-hand experiences to help guide and refine my thoughts and ideas through the process. I gained invaluable insights and lifelong connections through this experience, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity!"

Through her customer discovery process at SXSW, Sitwat realized she needed to pivot her original idea to a completely new platform, and engage with an audience she hadn’t thought about before. She was able to gain valuable insights from her interviewees, mentors, and peers, and has clarity about what her next action steps are to further refine her innovation. 

Full group of participants at SXSW
Group photo at SXSW

Creating Pathways for Inclusive Entrepreneurship:

By the end of the week, every participant shared their findings with the cohort, and each person had their own unique takeaways—from completely changing their target audience, to further refining their ideas from a different use than originally imagined. Some found additional funding opportunities, while others found new interest groups for customer discovery.

"Innovation thrives when a diverse audience of participants are given the opportunity to be included," commented Dr. Charleson Bell, Director of Entrepreneurship and Biomedical Innovation at the Wond’ry. "The essence of SXSW is bringing together people from all backgrounds, interests, and experiences to exchange ideas and allow perspectives to collide. Convening this diverse ecosystem of innovators from Vanderbilt University, Tennessee State University, University of Virginia, and Fellows from the GEM Consortium at this year’s festival laid the groundwork for catalyzing lasting impact to drive forward the development of  our inclusive innovation system across the Mid-South region and now beyond."

To learn more about the Mid-South I-Corps Hub, click here. 

Article written: Chandler Meador, Marketing & Communications Assistant, Mid-South Hub

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