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Building Companies with Customers

Building Companies with Customers

RPI’s Severino Center for Technological Entrepreneurship Focuses on Customer Validation

By: Jennifer Ding | The Wagoner Firm

VARA Firearm Security | Upstate Venture ConnectVARA is a firearm security company that started when CEO Timothy Oh’s became a student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in 2014. In fact, one of the highlights of the school for Oh is its strong entrepreneurship center. VARA Firearm Security has grown with Oh during his time as an RPI student. Oh started off as a mechanical engineer and eventually took time off from being a full-time student to work on scaling his startup. During his time here, Oh has taken VARA through several of The Severino Center’s programs such as The Change the World Challenge and the RPI Business Model Competition but what really pushed the company’s growth is The Severino Center’s emphasis on customer based design.

As colleges and universities are putting more emphasis on experiential learning and project-based work, entrepreneurial students have more opportunities to develop ideas in the classroom that they can then bring to life. In Troy, NY, the Paul J. ‘69 and Kathleen M. Severino Center for Technological Entrepreneurship (The Severino Center) aims to provide that support and those resources for students at RPI. The Severino Center serves students on the entrepreneurship continuum at the feasibility and ideation stages. It’s the first resource on campus for students who want to further develop their ideas and make them a reality.

The Severino Center’s tight-knit team includes Academic Director, Jason Kuruzovich, Associate Program Director, Kelly Reardon-Sleicher, and Entrepreneur in Residence, Clint Ballinger. Together, they provide opportunities to foster student entrepreneurship and extend programs to the local community.

“We get to know everyone that comes in the door really well. We’re constantly thinking about what each individual person needs and if we can make it happen, whether it’s a connection or a program or some other resource,” says Reardon-Sleicher. “They’re constantly sending me relevant industry articles or opportunities that I should look into,” adds Oh.

Timmy Oh | VARA Firearm SecurityWhat makes The Severino Center different from other accelerator programs and colleges is that they really encourage their students to do customer discovery. They’re constantly reinforcing that companies are built with customers at every step of the way. Under the guidance of the Severino Center, VARA has conducted interviews with 1,500 customers in the past three years.

“It was very exciting,” says Oh. “It really pushes you out of your comfort zone, doing customer discovery. It’s very different from engineering where you are given a problem and then solve it all alone. The team at The Severino Center really wants us to ask open-ended questions to potential customers. Getting to hear individual stories has really helped give the company more meaning and makes it the end product more personal, we know how and why they would purchase and use it. This understanding helps us better design and market our product.”

When VARA first publicized its original design, its customer feedback rejected the design so much that the company had to pivot. After talking to more customers and the LAPD, VARA redesigned and created its intuitive and biometric enabled home gun safe. The company is looking to begin manufacturing in the beginning of 2018.

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