Discovering Your Most Valuable Market Opportunities with Marc Gruber

Executive Director Tilo Peters talks to Marc Gruber, Vice President of Innovation and Professor of Entrepreneurship at EPFL about his new book “Where to Play: 3 Steps for Discovering Your Most Valuable Market Opportunities”. A great tool for entrepreneurs and innovators of companies large and small, this books helps identify the right markets to “play” in.

Tilo Peters: Hello! We’re here today to talk with Marc Gruber,  Vice President of Innovation and Professor of Entrepreneurship at EPFL, about his new book “Where to Play”.

Marc, can you tell us a little bit about what you do as the Vice President of Innovation at EPFL?

Welcome everyone, it’s a pleasure to be here. As the Vice President of Innovation you actually do a lot of things. It is part of the mission of EPFL to do research, education and actually, innovation. As the Vice President for Innovation I define the mission, to be a catalyst for innovation. When I said initially that there are a lot of things to do, I mean to orchestrate many things, to have a climate, a culture of innovation at a school. I think it works extremely well because we have 170 startups here on campus. We have 25 large companies here on campus and we have students that are excited about entrepreneurship innovation so it’s a it’s a fascinating area to work in and one where we try to learn from the best and have our own ideas of how to push this to the next frontier.

When you wrote this book “Where to Play”, what was your initial goal when you set out?

When I wrote this book with my colleague Sharon Tal – it took actually three years to write it, much longer than we thought – the goal was to put down on paper and then later on in video, as a MOOC (a massive open online course), the ideas that originated from a significant research program.  We got both, Sharon and I, received lots of requests by startups and by established companies to talk about the topics that I discuss in the book. To consult with them, to work with them, to help them get off the ground and find the best markets. So, at some point we just thought, let’s sit down and write this book and get it out there, to reach even more people.

Would you say that your previous research has contributed a lot to the fundaments and the content of this book?

Actually, it was the trigger for the book, in the sense that in my research program, I tried to understand the early stage of opportunity identification. Many people would say it’s about luck or stumbling across an opportunity, to create a business or create a new business line. My goal was to demystify that luck component because there’s a systematic component. That’s what you actually see in the research.  That you can identify the systematic components and after a while you get a whole picture of what the systematic components are. We utilized that to write the book and then develop a straightforward, easy to apply framework to manage that process, that early statute identification process.

Yes, when I was reading through this book I definitely saw that. I think that the market “opportunity navigator” is a fascinating framework. Could you walk us through that and tell us what it is?

Thanks for the nice comment! It’s a framework that we designed that is not too complicated but doesn’t dumb down things. It’s a framework that has three main steps.

The first step walks you through a method and approach to identify opportunities. How can you do this more systematically? Because most firms have a too-narrow focus on the types of opportunities they see, and there are as many more options that they could potentially exploit, especially nowadays with so much technology around.  So the first step is called “developing the opportunity set”.

The second step is about evaluating those opportunities.  The interesting part is that not all opportunities are alike. Some are extremely promising but fraught with many challenges – we call them the “moonshots”.  Others have fewer challenges but have similar potential – we call them the “gold mines” and we have two other types. But differentiating between opportunities helps you to understand where to focus and helps you to ultimately be a better manager or better entrepreneur.

One interesting thing that you bring up in this Navigator, is the concept of agile focus. What is it and how does a person go about on refining or developing this capability?

Yes, I just mentioned that you need to focus, and this agile focused strategy, which represents the third step of the Navigator. We try to help you develop a strategy that is focused but also agile. Because when you look at innovation, typically, by definition you’re doing something new and that means your activities are fraught with uncertainty. So you might have to change the focus of your project to another market over time. Actually, from our research we see that 73% of all startups have to pivot to another market because the first market in which they believed in, didn’t have the potential. So in that sense if you already know that at some point, you might, with high likelihood have to change, it’s only smart to be cognizant of that fact from the beginning. This means you can build flexibility into the DNA of your company.

Let me give you a concrete example to make this more palpable. Think about for instance picking a brand name for a start-up.  You can pick a very narrow brand name.  Think about “CD Now”. You know, with “CD Now”, you can only sell CDs.  If that shouldn’t work out, if you want to pivot to DVDs you have to change the name of the company. But you can select a brand name that accommodates CDs, DVDs, whatever, and you are able to pivot from one

market to the other in a much simpler way and that is less cumbersome, less costly etc. That’s just one example where you can build agility into the DNA of your company.

That’s really interesting. You do a good job of outlining how the Opportunity Navigator can be good for entrepreneurs and even vital in a way, but in what ways could it be useful for other types of organizations?

Actually, we do work with large companies and try to help them understand where their opportunity landscape is, what it is about, what they can potentially do, where a new crop or growth opportunities lie. If you think “big picture”, what we are seeing nowadays with all these technological developments – additive manufacturing, Internet of Things, digitalization, blockchain – there’s so much technology around but we don’t really know where the best applications lie.  There, the book really helps to figure out: what is my opportunity space?  Which applications are feasible? Which are the best ones? Where should I focus and which applications can I forget about?

And there it’s helpful for large enterprises, we made some terrific experience with large enterprises on this front. It’s helpful for technology transfer offices. It’s helpful for educators in this space but it’s also helpful for venture capitalists as financiers of startups and venture projects. Because they need to understand what the growth potential of companies is.

You mentioned VCs and investors. How is this useful in relation to, or complementary to their existing tools their existing methodologies?

It’s actually highly complementary. They often resort to the business model canvas for instance, lean startup approaches. The book is actually helping both approaches to be more powerful. In that sense it’s helpful to the existing toolbox, but in particularly it’s helpful to venture capitalists. The feedback we received is that it’s because it helps them to understand the growth potential of a start-up and it helps on the startup side, to communicate in a much more compelling way, the growth potential that they foresee. Growth potential basically means value creation potential and that’s what the VC loves to have, and that’s what if the VC doesn’t see, often kill the deal! So, in that sense it’s wise for a startup company to actually think about these key elements, of what a VC wants to see beforehand and there, the book gives you a clear recipe.

That’s terrific, the book is fascinating, it’s a good read.  I know you also have a bunch of cases and other elements online. Where’s that located?

Yes, we went an extra mile and made an extra effort to make this content accessible.

The book is one outlet, and we have a website called (not com but co).

You can find our newsletter there, you can find examples there, you can find the worksheets that accompany the book there, you know it’s all for free. You can also visit our course on EDX for free where you can get a Certificate.  Make use of the content we we are happy to help you!

You’re doing a good job of spreading the word and hopefully we are too, so take a look at the book take a look at and look at EDX, Where to Play.

  • EdX course: Find the right markets for your innovation – A tool for entrepreneurs and innovators for choosing which markets to play in.