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By Kate Cranney 23 October 2019 5 min read

When someone mentions a startup, what do you think of? Airbnb? Uber? Canva?

Could you imagine conservation scientists using a startup approach in their research? Dr Iadine Chades says we should.

Conservation Drones is one of three conservation businesses that Iadine and her coauthors looked into. Here, World Wildlife Fund hand launch a Conservation Drone (Image: Cliffspiration)

Business-thinking for biodiversity

Iadine[Link will open in a new window] is a Principal Research Scientist at CSIRO. Lately, Iadine and Postdoctoral Fellow, Gwen Iacona have been looking at the benefits of scientists using a ‘lean startup’ approach with their work.

“I’m interested in how we make innovation successful,” Iadine says.

This month, Iadine, Gwen and 17 other authors from around the world (listed below) published a paper on this new approach. They’re calling on conservation scientists, agencies, and funders to adopt a business mindset when they assess the viability of new technology.

If you fail to (business) plan, you plan to fail

Technological innovation is a key part of our era, and the way we do science. But conservation efforts often rely on ‘old technologies’: for instance, using rangers to do biodiversity surveys in unsafe or remote locations, instead of drones. If we want to bring conservation practices into the 21st century, we need to create or adopt new technology.

But, there’s a catch.

“There’s a lot of public good research happening using new technology,” Iadine explains. “But these initiatives can die very quickly—even if they’re good ideas—because people haven’t thought through everything required to make them long-term, useful innovations."

Some of the common issues include failing to properly identify the end user, insufficient testing of prototypes or overlooking the effort required to ensure substantial uptake and a good end-user experience.

Trialling new tech can also be risky for cash-strapped, time-poor projects.

“A lot of interesting technological innovations die. So, we’ve provided a framework from the lean startup world for you to plan ahead,” Iadine says.

Iadine and co-authors argue that a good business model is essential if you're testing a new conservation technology. (Image: Pixabay)

Taking care of business (planning)

In the business startup world, entrepreneurs can assess how useful a new product or idea is using tried-and-tested strategies to determine the feasibility of new ventures.

Iadine argues that having a good business model is essential and that using the right language is also key.

“You need to be able to frame your idea or innovation in business terms. If you’re not able to frame your idea or innovation in business terms, you’re not even in the funding race,” Iadine says.

So, what is business planning for a conservation scientist?

In its simplest form, a business plan is a road-map for your business that outlines your goals and how you’re going to achieve them. Startups often use a particularly ‘lean’ (faster, cheaper) methodology.

Iadine and co-authors have created a five-step ‘lean startup’ approach for conservation scientists to test the validity of the new technology (Figure 1). They also use two templates: the Business Model Canvas (which helps track how the business will create, deliver and track value) and the Value Proposition Canvas (which focuses on the value a product can offer, and the specific needs of people that product addresses).

The researchers ran three existing high-profile conservation technologies through each of the five steps in this ‘lean startup’ business development methodology:

  1. Field equipment and data support: Conservation Drones
  2. Conservation planning software: Marxan
  3. Species-tracking platform: Mataki

Overall, they found that the case studies had legitimate Value Propositions, but their development often overlooks the resourcing and customer relationship aspects of the business model.

Figure 1: Iadine and co-authors created this five-step ‘lean startup’ approach for conservation scientists to test the validity of the new technology.

Okay, so how do I learn more about business model thinking? 

Since 2015, CSIRO has provided ‘lean startup’ training for publicly funded researchers across Australia. The ON Program uses the Business Model Canvas, Value Proposition Canvas and other tools to help explore the feasibility of research projects.

Iadine graduated from ON Prime in 2017.

“I thought it was great; as a scientist I learned a lot. I learned how to develop a business model; to have a good value proposition; to target my research; to understand that the ‘customers’ of public good research include the public, governments, and NGOs.”

Thinking in this business-minded way has “systematically changed” how Iadine does her work.

“Now, in my team, we refer to the Value Proposition Canvas for projects. We ask ourselves: ‘Who are we developing this research for? Who are our stakeholders, what are their concerns and pain points? What would be a good outcome for them?’”

“It’s a simple way of framing any type of problem. We all do that instinctively, but this is a nice structured way to do it. It’s simple. It makes sense. It’s a faster way to make sure you’re asking the right questions.”

ON is a CSIRO program that teaches business skills to publicly funded scientists from around Australia.

After helping over 600 teams get their ideas out of the laboratory and into the world—forming 52 new, sustainable companies in the process—ON will officially come to an end on 30 June 2020. The key lesson from ON remains: business planning is essential for publicly funded science.

Using business model thinking does not prevent technological innovations from failing, but the process can prevent avoidable shortcomings, and increase the chance of your technology supporting biodiversity conservation efforts. As Iadine says: “It’s okay to fail, but fail strategically.”

The journal article is published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. You can find the article online here.[Link will open in a new window]

The research was co-authored by the following contributors:

Gwenllian Iacona1*, Anurag Ramachandra2, Jennifer McGowan1,3, Alasdair Davies4, Lucas Joppa5, Lian Pin Koh2,6, Eric Fegraus2, Edward Game7, Gurutzeta Guillera-Arroita8, Rob Harcourt3, Karlina Indraswari9, José J. Lahoz-Monfort8, Jessica L. Oliver9, Hugh Possingham1,7, Adrian Ward10, David Watson11, James E.M. Watson10,12, Brendan A. Wintle8, Iadine Chades1,13*

* Authors contributed equally

1 Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, QLD 4072, Australia

2 Conservation International, 2201 Crystal Drive Suite 500, Arlington, VA, 22202 United States of America

3 Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, North Ryde, NSW, 2109, Australia

4 Zoological Society of London, Regent's Park, London, NW1 4RY, United Kingdom

5 Microsoft, Redmond, WA, United States of America

6 School of Biological Sciences, University of Adelaide, South Australia

7 The Nature Conservancy, South Brisbane, QLD 4101, Australia

8 School of BioSciences, The University of Melbourne, Parkville, VIC 3010, Australia

9 School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, QLD, 4000, Australia

10 School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, QLD 4072, Australia

11 Institute for Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, Albury, NSW, Australia

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