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10 tool-making insights from the Tool Foundry selection committee

The selection committee’s review of the Tool Foundry accelerator applications is underway. As inventors, entrepreneurs, investors, and champions of expanding access to science, the members of the selection committee bring a range of unique perspectives to the review process. We’re grateful for their efforts to help bring tools for scientific discovery to life.

“Programs like [Tool Foundry] gave us our first start as a company, and I’m deeply excited about sharing the knowledge and expertise with the group.”
Keith Kirkland, Co-founder at WearWorks

We spoke with committee members about their own experiences developing accessible tools and the importance of democratizing science. Here are 10 tips they shared:

1. Put your users first

“Always keep the customer or end user in mind as you develop your tool — product innovation and product adoption don’t always go hand in hand!”
Alex Healey, Senior Associate at Acumen

“Think about your users. They should always be at the very front of every decision; and your product and process need to speak to that. It may have started as your idea, but now it belongs to your customer. And it has to serve them. Their adoption and their endorsement will either make or break the product, maybe even the company. So only the initial spark is yours, the product belongs to your users. So listen and be open to the changes.”
Keith Kirkland, Co-founder at WearWorks

2. Keep it simple

“The easier it is to use, the better. Keep it simple and pretend you are building it for your grandparent!”
— Robbie Barbero, Chief Business Officer at Ceres Nanosciences

“Practicality and ease of use allow tools to be more broadly used. It also allows the next generation of tool designers and inventors to build upon the original ideas and take these tools to the next level. I encourage inventors to think not only about the problem they want to help solve, but also the people who are going to use these tools to help solve problems.”
Bilal Zuberi, Partner at Lux Capital

3. Solicit feedback

“Test early and often with people you don’t know, in the actual places they’d be using your tool. Reassure them that it’s a test of the tool, not of their own skills, and take every bit of feedback as a gift (even if it stings a little).”
Denice Ross, Fellow in Residence at the Beeck Center for Social Impact & Innovation

4. Look for ways to expand access

“The democratization of scientific discovery helps us not only uncover innovative solutions to the big challenges we’re facing, but also helps us surface challenges that affect niche and marginalized communities.”
Ruthe Farmer, Chief Evangelist at CSforAll

“For all of humanity to participate in the opportunities provided by science and technology, the fundamental instruments of exploration must not be limited to only the privileged few. By catalyzing a proliferation of more accessible scientific tools, we are enabling all people to ask and answer the questions that are most relevant to their lives, their communities, and their futures. When scientific inquiry can be conducted by any person, and solutions can be adapted to any place, we will all thrive together.”
Christofer Nelson, Chief Operating Officer at Association of Science-Technology Centers

5. Solve a real problem

“The difference between humans and other smart animals is that we have figured out how to make interesting tools and use them to solve interesting problems — and discover other new, interesting problems. There is a great need to democratize access to tools and technologies that people can use in unique and creative ways to solve the world’s most pressing problems.”
Bilal Zuberi, Partner at Lux Capital

6. Consider affordability

“Accessibility is something that is deeply important to me. Especially when we talk about accessibility from the point of view of affordability. I grew up in a place of concentrated poverty where resources were limited, which often limits opportunity and potential. Access to affordable tools democratizes the process of scientific discovery and gives every great and willing mind, regardless of economic status, the ability to help solve the challenges facing the world today.”
Keith Kirkland, Co-founder at WearWorks

7. Find opportunities to collaborate and learn

“In the modern world, collaboration is of great importance; most every field has changed drastically over the last hundred years, and it’s no longer feasible to become proficient in every discipline involved in the development of new scientific tools. Education is quite important as well, not just in preparing team members to tackle problems in areas with which they are less familiar, but also in the complex process of entrepreneurship.”
Alexis Lewis, Social Innovation Entrepreneur

“Participating in the Tool Foundry accelerator will offer an opportunity for teams to hone their pitches and refine their products in a competitive yet collaborative environment. I’m excited to see how the teams interact both as teams, and also across teams.”
Ruthe Farmer, Chief Evangelist at CSforAll

8. Build a diverse team

“Team development is critical to the success of new ventures, and often ventures are incubated by close collaborators. I recommend actively examining the diversity of your team and asking if you have adequate diversity of perspectives and background to truly push boundaries. Time and time again research shows that diverse teams are more innovative. It is important to address this early on.”
Ruthe Farmer, Chief Evangelist at CSforAll

9. Engage with a larger community

“Tools evolve over time, and they do so more meaningfully and impactfully when a community develops around them and engages in collaborative design and research. The accelerator helps the inventors not only access a broader group of talent to develop their tools, but also allows for more interdisciplinary input into the process so their ideas are shaped and honed into more useful outputs.”
Bilal Zuberi, Partner at Lux Capital

10. Perspective is key

“This is not about what you can do right now, it’s about what, feasibly, can be done. If you have ideas for the expansion of your inventions, keep those in mind, but focus on a beachhead market in the near-term.”
Alexis Lewis, Social Innovation Entrepreneur

Up to 12 cohort candidate teams will present their prototypes to the selection committee and participate in a live Q&A at the Carnegie Institution for Science on July 9. Five of these teams will be selected to join the accelerator cohort.

Be the first to learn which accelerator applicants will advance to the selection committee presentations: subscribe to the Tool Foundry Journal.

Published: 06/20/2019