Native Dominicans say that Punta Cana is not the real Dominican Republic, but it was a “must see” stop when I was there to deliver the innovation boot camp I was hosting along with my partners, Emil Rodriguez and Eric Gorman.
It is difficult to have an authentic experience there, as it effectively functions as an adult day care for American and Russian tourists. The beach was warm and beautiful and our Dominican hosts procured us tickets to a Gente de Zona concert at one of the resorts. Their hit song, “La Gozadera” has over 1 billion hits on YouTube, but no one that lives north of Florida has ever heard of them. The snorkeling was amazing and I had a great time at the concert, but I had my fill. It was time to get back to Santo Domingo and innovate.
Our boot camp was based in design sprint methodology. This method is when you put a focused amount of time (usually a week) building a just-good-enough prototype to get customer feedback before investing a bigger time and cost budget to fully-develop a product or process.
We wanted to challenge the students to quickly get to the root of the design challenge and build a minimum viable product in just a short time. Oh, and then pitch their concepts to potential investors. It was effectively a hybrid between Jake Knapp’s design sprint philosophy from his book “Sprint” and StartupBus.
The challenge we gave the students was…
“How can we get more people to grow plants effectively at home?”
The students were mostly engineers and designers and we hoped that they would dig into the challenge of building a physical product. However, as the students filed into our classroom at INTEC University on the first morning, I started to feel nervous about how all this would go. Were they going to speak English well enough to understand our content? Would they be interested in our design challenge? These worries were for nothing because at lunchtime, the room was covered sticky notes from the four teams ideating. I knew it was going to be an awesome week.
Eric kicked things off the right way by sparking some critical thinking.
He encouraged the students to ask key questions to get to the heart of the challenge, like “To meet our goal(more people growing plants at home) what has to be true?” and “Imagine we’re in the future and our project failed. What might have caused that?” This got them thinking through the depth of the challenge and got their creative juices flowing.
The next morning, we had the students build some prototypes to test their ideas. They needed to get early feedback before spending hours engineering their concepts. Eric showed them how even the most simple prototype can be leveraged to gain key insights from potential customers. To demonstrate, he wrote “Dominican Cola” on a sticky note, slapped it onto a bottle of water, and started mock interviews with the students about what “Dominican Cola” might be.
It was a great exercise to show the students how simple a prototype can be in the early stages before getting bogged down in the technical details.
Now it was the students’ turn to prototype. Keeping with the “sprint” theme, they used simple materials and found goods to build their prototypes. Cardboard, pieces of plastic and fake plants borrowed from the dining hall were all put to good use. In just a few hours all four teams has rough but communicative prototypes. At lunchtime, we sent them out to the streets and to local businesses to conduct interviews and get some crucial feedback.
Meanwhile, Emil, Eric and I grabbed some lunch and took a quick tour of the botanical gardens adjacent to the university. After seeing the splendid Japanese garden and a bunch of orchids, we got some ice cream and headed back to class.
As a result of the initial consumer feedback, two of the teams decided to change their concept completely. Those teams scrambled to build new prototypes, while the other two teams started engineering and design work for their final prototypes.
Later that night we got a small taste of the small but vibrant Santo Domingo startup scene. Emil took us to a Startup Grind event on the rooftop of a hip, local co-working space. It was sponsored by Chivas, and drinks were on the house. It was a scene that would not have looked out of place in any American city center.
Local entrepreneurs an students came out to listen to Ligia Bonetti talk about her experience building a company in the Dominican Republic. I understood so very little of it despite my best attempt to concentrate while furiously typing words into Google Translate on my phone. What I did find out through an English recap of this talk as well as with conversations with other local entrepreneurs is that there are many challenges for innovators in the D.R. They have a little-used/under-appreciated patent system, a largely agricultural and service-based economy, and are literally on an island to name a few. But, there is a core of motivated citizens that are working hard to build great businesses and strengthen the Dominican economy.
Back at the boot camp, Emil and I took over facilitating. It was time to start engineering and make “looks-like, works-like” prototypes.
I helped the teams strategize how to design their parts so they could be easily made, and Emil and his team from Xolutronic helped the students with their electronics design and coding. Soon, the room was bursting with activity. Mechanical engineers were making CAD files, electrical engineers were coding their micro-controllers, and the designers were working on collateral material for their pitches. But, there were challenges ahead.
Emil and I realized that due to the size of the products being designed, the 3D printers we had were going to take too long to build the students’ devices. This was an unforeseen complication, but a very real-world challenge. I inquired about trying to find a laser cutter as that would be much faster. After a few phone calls, Emil’s team found one in town that we could use. This made prototyping easier for us, but we had little time to get CAD files together. I helped the teams tune their files and we submitted them just in time to get our parts made before the last day of the program.
The final day of the boot camp was a whirlwind. The official summer term at INTEC had started and we lost our original classroom to make room for scheduled classes. We were fortunate to find a new room, and despite it being a bit smaller than our original, the teams forged on dutifully with their prototypes. The 3D printers whirred away on smaller parts, and the students frantically glued parts together and painted them. While half the students prototyped, the other half prepared their pitches. Teams finalized their decks and Emil had each of them do two practice pitches before our official event that evening.
All four teams worked right up to the final minute (and beyond). Meanwhile, representatives from the U.S. Embassy, a local angel investor, a couple of professors and the owners of Dominican-based hydroponic farming company, Futura Farms, filed in to watch.
The teams placed their prototypes on the tables in the lecture hall and unleashed their three-minute pitches. They did their presentations in Spanish, so I did not understand ever word, but I was proud to see how confidently they were delivered and how polished their decks were.
They took and answered difficult questions from the audience with great poise. The prototypes looked great and one of them even had a working app that would turn the lights about the plans on and off. The teams finished to a warm round of applause and the industrial design professor joked that they had no excuse to create great work in their forthcoming classes based on what they had built in just a few days.
As we cleaned up the classrooms and headed out of the university, I had mixed emotions. I was proud of what the students had achieved, and thankful for the Young Leaders of America Initiative (YLAI) program to have had the opportunity to work with this talented youth of the D.R. and share my experience. But, I was also bummed to leave Emil and his team after having such a great time working with them. Hopefully, we’ll have the opportunity to go back and do it again.