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Unlocking Human Potential: What We Learned from NEA’s New Design Studio Format

In a mobile-first world, design is not only key to developing products consumers love, but needs to be a core part of a company’s DNA from the earliest days. Brand differentiation and consumer behavior now hinge on a product’s design, and we see a growing number of talented designers making the leap to entrepreneurship.

In 2013, NEA created the Design Studio, a summer-long mentorship program for designers interested in founding companies. One year later, we kicked off our second installment of the Design Studio and we experimented with a new format: Instead of hosting a summer-long program, we held a two-week intensive program for six teams of designers. During those two weeks, each team would work toward developing a product vision and prototype. We organized the program around a theme, “Unlocking Human Potential,” reflecting the concept that online products and services can initiate loyalty by making users feel more powerful and productive. 

We kept the elements that worked best about the first iteration, including partnering with two talented leaders of the design community in NYC who provided superb mentorship to the designers. Albert Lee of the product studio AllTomorrows and Liz Danzico, the head of the Interaction Design program at the School of Visual Arts, helped craft the Design Studio’s theme, program and schedule. Albert spent countless hours reviewing the teams’ product designs and pushing them to think more about how their individual products worked to satisfy a basic human need, and Liz was instrumental in bringing new designer entrepreneurs to the program.

The results of this two-week intensive program blew us away. We were amazed at how each team came in with a blank slate and drew on the energy of the larger group to churn out stories and prototypes that conveyed months, rather than weeks, worth of work—ultimately creating polished concepts that we’re all very proud of.

So without further ado, here is a list of the projects:

Shortwave allows customers to easily exchange files and conversations with those within 100 feet.
Scouted is a mobile app that helps get people to places through simple, organized lists.
• Specimen is an anatomically inspired sunglasses company that makes one-of-a-kind 3-D printed eyewear, customized for individual facial features and tastes.
• Sesame provides smart access to spaces with a Bluetooth enabled lock.
• Tacit is a platform that is re-thinking science education.
• Factory is a mobile application that allows you to discover, share, and have your mind blown by fascinating facts.

After the intensive two-week program, these teams are now fleshing out the implementation and growth of their products and they are making great strides in product development and company formation. This underscores the most unusual—and important—element in the evolution of NEA’s Design Studio: rather than working with an accelerator that lasted months, these teams have been sent off into the wild to do the hardest part of entrepreneurship—to boil down all the advice and ideas for future development into what they think will satisfy user demand and to think through what they can realistically achieve in a short period of time. This format aligns with the true reality of being an entrepreneur: long stretches of internal work and persistence to iterate and adjust an idea often follow intense periods of outside feedback and advice.

We thought the timing was right to offer up a next installment of the NEA Design Studio, In the Studio Part II, which will tackle a lot of the “what comes next” after creating a prototype and business plan. We are excited to begin accepting applications from talented designers and entrepreneurs starting TODAY. In the Studio Part II will be held from November 10-21, 2014 and will focus on mentoring designers who are interested in entrepreneurship in the areas of go-to-market strategy, team building, and fundraising. The program is open to all participants of the first installment of the NEA Design Studio, but it is open to new applicants, as well. In order to be considered for this installment of the program, applicants will be expected to have a first version of their product in the market and should be prepared to ramp up usage of the product during the course of the program.  The application for In the Studio Part II can be found here.