Welcome! This page is for my students taking the Venture Design Studio in Winter 2019! You can think of it as a project handout on steroids – project details, FAQs, background material, etc… All kept up to date as we go. If you’re one of my students then just carry on below. And check out some testimonials for the process here »

If you’re an educator then feel free to take it all in and be sure to check out the bottom of the page » to go under the hood on the design a little. This is just one way in which the VDS can be implemented, so if you want to go deeper, you can also register as a Straight Up Educator »  and check out this sample syllabus »  Thanks for being here!


The Venture Design Studio is a multi-week project through which you will design the most highly impactful and imminently feasible version of a new venture concept possible.

It is experiential in nature and designed to be authentic to what it’s like to go through a ‘real’ entrepreneurial experience.

You will work in teams (to be chosen by you through an in-class process), and there is no constraint as to what kind of concept you can propose and work on, except that you must be able to demonstrate that it has high potential impactful and that it would be feasible for your team to reach first revenues within 6-months of the first day of this course.

Throughout the project, you will be: 1) developing ‘idea models’ and other key new venture prototypes; 2) continuously assessing and improving your idea; 3) pitching to and seeking feedback from the right people, including experienced innovators and entrepreneurs I will bring into the room.

We will continue to employ the design thinking-based approaches to idea and opportunity design to which you have been introduced, as well as a suite of practical tools for designing and validating a really big value idea; overall, the idea is to help you get from being good at ‘implementing it right’ to also being good at ‘implementing the right it’.

(Also note that although the VDS is a team project, there are a number of levels of learning for you to master individually as you proceed. These will be shared with you as part of your Un-exam, as described here.)

Your mark

See also the document How exactly do I get a great mark in the Venture Design Studio »

I know your mark is important to you, so this section outlines what to expect in that respect, and how to do well.

Your mark will come from three things, equally weighted. The first two are measures of the quality of the idea your team ends up designing, i.e. the outcomes or products of your learning:

1. The first 1/3 of your mark comes from the assessment made by your instructor of your final models and venture prototypes. These include the Idea Napkin with which you have already worked, as well as something called an Idea Page, and others that I will make available to you as we go. When assessed together, these provide a measure of the potential value of the idea you have designed.

2. The second 1/3 of your mark comes from the assessment made by our in-class guests of your final pitch. This is a measure of your ability to clearly and effectively communicate the value you have designed.

The Idea Critique Pad and Idea Slides Rules will be used as the basis for making these two assessments, as is outlined here. And in both cases, your mark will be computed as the average of the scores received in each subcategory. For example, if you were to receive scores in the customer, value proposition, substitutes and alternatives, distinctive competency, offering, and people categories of 8, 7, 9, 6, 7, and 9 based on your final pitch, then your overall score for the second grade item would be the numerical average of the scores (which is 76.667% in this example). You’ll get lots of practice with this since you will receive scores at multiple stages and at the end of each iteration, but only your score in the final iteration will count.

The third thing that makes up your mark in the project is a measure of how well you share what you have learned by going through the process, i.e. what you have learned as distinct from the outcome of the learning:

3. This 1/3 of your grade is based on evidence you’ll provide of the learning you have done throughout the process.

This is different from the outcome or product of your learning. For example, even if you ended up designing a terrible idea (which is pretty unlikely given the process you’re going through), you might still have learned a lot from the process. In fact, struggling and working hard to design a great idea can often teach you more than landing on one right away or by chance, and innovators and entrepreneurs often learn more by failing than by succeeding. In class I will share with you how this last part takes place, but you can expect it to be done online between each iteration of the VDS. You will be assessed for this part on a pass-fail basis. To pass, you just need to complete it each time and engage with it sufficiently deeply.

So, doing well on this project boils down to figuring out and mastering the process of designing a really big value idea, and reflecting on and sharing with me the learning that you’ve done in the journey.

As you know from the course outline, these three assessments taken together are worth 50% of your final mark in the course.

Possible bonus marks and prizes

Bonus marks via ‘Investment Notes’

You will have the chance to earn bonus marks if you prove to be good at assessing the potential value of the other ideas being worked up in class. After each iteration of the VDS, you will be given the opportunity to submit an “investment note”. This allows you to ‘vote’ by assessing and indicating to me the team whose idea you think will go on to be chosen as the venture with the highest value in your section. You won’t be able to change a vote once it has been cast but you can vote for a different idea / team each time, and you can vote for your own idea or team if you wish. If a team changes ideas then your vote moves forward with the team to their new idea.

For every investment note you invest in the team that does end up being named the venture with the highest potential in your section at the end, you will get a bonus of 1% added to your final grade. This means that if you were to get four such voting opportunities, you could get up to an additional 5% added to your final grade by having correctly identified and voted for the highest value concept each time.

You will cast these votes in class (or through a link on D2L if we don’t do it in class) after our guests provide feedback, but before you’ve seen that feedback.

Cash Prizes for great performance

Prizes will be awarded in categories such as the following to be confirmed in class:

  • To the team with the ‘Top Venture’ overall in your class
  • To the individual with the most meaningful look-back reflections
  • To the individual that best demonstrates concept mastery (via that portion of the Un-exam)

These are no-strings-attached cash prizes meant to provide an incentive for and reward great performance. They’re funded by pooling and returning 100% of the cost students taking this course have to pay for the levels in the Idea Maker Course (see below).

In part, this is to avoid any possibly perceived conflict of interest on my part because I am one of the authors of the Idea Maker Course, i.e. it’s so I don’t see any personal financial gain at all from you using the things I have assigned to you. In larger part though, it’s simply meant to offer a risk-reward learning dynamic authentic to entrepreneurship, reward people who do great things in that respect, and add a layer of fun to the experience you’re going through.

You also have the option to opt out of the prize pool and get a refund instead, as outlined here.

As your professor, I will judge these prizes with the help of guest judges and your TAs. Winners will be asked to share their submissions and/or videos with the rest of the class and with students in future classes as examples of great performance.

Key resources

There are four key resources for this project:

1. The discussions, mini-lectures, and workshops we will continue to go through together during the class sessions, as well as the feedback you will get from me through our topic quizzes and discussions.

2. The Idea Maker Course (link TBA), a suite of online courses which will be made available to you via our class schedule. These aim to be like Udacity’s Nanodegrees except that their focus is on ideation. You can think of this as being the modern equivalent of a textbook. It’s also a resource you’ll always have in your pocket (your access never expires) in the future for any venture you might want to design.

3. Your Idea Design Kit (whether you made your own or bought one in Mini-badge #2), together with a suite of tools, frameworks, and other models and venture prototypes that I will make available to you.

4. The people I will invite to join us as guests, who you can think about as a combination of a judge, mentor, and choreographer

Challenge Stream

Under exceptional circumstances and if I am approached in advance, I might allow a team to “challenge the system” and bring an existing new venture into the Venture Design Studio process. Students who do this are not guaranteed a spot in the in-class competitions but can challenge for one by submitting a video to me in advance. This stream is designed specifically to support students who might already be part of a team that wants to advance ongoing work as part of this course, e.g. a venture-related project they’re working on for a program or capstone experience.

A reminder about ideas and intellectual property

(This is repeated from your course outline and your earlier mini-badges.)

In order to enable your learning in this course, you and your classmates will be coming up with ideas for products and ventures. This starts right here with this exercise (although I expect most of the ideas you come up here will be throw-away, i.e. just early stage ideas to get you started on learning the process).

But since your instructor is not able to protect those ideas or the intellectual property they represent – e.g. the learning processes we will follow do not afford the use of non-disclosure agreements, patents, or any other mechanisms used for protecting ideas – you are asked not to base your work on any idea that you are not comfortable having widely disclosed to others. You should be aware that:

  • Although ideas are often generated by the processes you will be going through in this course, we will only be using those ideas as vehicles for developing your competencies, skills and mindset, i.e. our focus is on the learning enabled by those ideas, and not on the ideas themselves;
  • If you have an idea that you are not comfortable having shared widely with and worked on by others – including but not limited to students, faculty members, guest entrepreneurs and judges, and the general public online – then you and/or your team members are asked to come up with a new idea that you are comfortable widely sharing, working on, and learning from throughout the course;
  • You are asked to work on the principle that anybody who participates in our learning process – including other students, faculty members, and guest entrepreneurs and judges, and the general public online – will have the option to also take and develop any of the ideas developed and discussed in the class; and
  • You are asked to work on the principle that although you will be working in teams and together as a class, no formal business partnerships are implied by the work you will do in the class.

Bottom line: 1) We can’t protect your ideas; so 2) Treat what we do in this class / project as exercises for getting better at ideation; and 3) If you have a super great idea you want to keep secret then save it and apply the concepts you’re going to learn here to that idea on your own later.

How the Un-exam relates to the VDS: Demonstrating your own personal levels of learning and mastery

The Venture Design Studio is a team project because you can’t design the kinds of high value new ventures we’re after without working with others. And it’s marked as outlined above.

However, you will also be required to ‘level up’ individually as you go through the project in order to demonstrate to me that you’ve personally mastered each of the key competencies.

This will happen as part of the Un-exam – you can think of it as being instead of a scheduled sit-down midterm or final exam. I will share further details in class and through the course schedule.

What people are saying about the tools and approach

  • 0:00 – Who is Kevin Crowe, Executive VP Strategy at Long View Systems?
  • 0:47 – What problem were you trying to solve?
  • 1:48 – What were you doing before, and what’s changed?
  • 3:08 – How did you build a business where the best ideas win?
  • 4:26 – What kinds of outcomes have you seen?
  • 5:19 – How did all of this improve your team dynamics and culture?
  • 6:45 – Did it really turn ‘innovation’ from a talking point into action?
  • 7:58 – Can you give us an example of something tangible you stood up?
  • 9:01 – Do you have a message for leaders trying to make innovation real?
  • 10:28 – How will it fit within my context?
  • 11:09 – How quickly can someone make this happen?

A look under the hood on the Venture Design Studio for educators

For the educator (or the really interested student), this section provides some background and details about how the Venture Design Studio came about, and some of its main characteristics.

I have been working for a number of years to design and openly share curricular tools, methodologies, frameworks, and approaches to assessment that aim to accelerate the learning a would-be entrepreneur should do when faced with the kinds of thresholds and barriers described above, and I have implemented those in a variety of contexts including university classrooms (e.g. Bruton, 2010), in online contexts, in professional and corporate learning contexts, and in faculty and curriculum development contexts (e.g. Bruton, 2016).

When publishing about and training other faculty members to implement similar approaches, I summarize them as: being experiential in nature; being quite authentic to a ‘real’ entrepreneurial experience; employing design thinking methodologies; making use of game-based elements; applying pedagogical analogical models; and being organized by threshold / barrier concepts.

In my classes, all of this comes together in this iterative experiential project called the Venture Design Studio (VDS) that usually spans some 6-7 weeks. It counts for some 50% of the final grade in the course, it has the students learning both individually and in teams by designing new ventures, and it requires that they construct and perform their understanding both in front of guest judges and in the community. Assessment focuses explicitly on both the products of the learning (e.g. a new venture that is intended to be both impactful and feasible) and on the process of the learning (e.g. via a reflective look-back assignment carried out at the end of each iteration).

For the purposes of providing context for the project, I highlight in the following sections some of the key aspects of the teaching and learning environment afforded by the VDS project.

Authentic problem-based learning and strategic ideation

The Venture Design Studio project exemplifies problem-based learning, e.g. as defined in Stepien & Gallagher (1993). It employs a learner-centered pedagogy in which people learn by solving an open ended problem. The problem is ill-defined, requiring them to define it as part of the learning process. It happens in an iterative manner, throughout which the student’s knowledge, ability to produce outputs, and perceptions of the process change over time. While general criteria and tools for self-assessment are provided, the process of finding a solution is not prescribed or carried out according to a formula. And assessment has been carefully designed so that it is both authentic to the practicing innovator, and based on how well the learner performs his or her understanding.

Further to the typical view of problem-based learning, learners in the Venture Design Studio are required to go back a step to search for a suitable combination of problem, customer, AND solution – all at the same time and before being able to present solutions to the problem. We call this strategic ideation and it represents a different kind of design challenge that you can think of as having to figure out whether you are ‘building the right it’ before going on to ‘build it right’.

Using pedagogical analogical models to construct knowledge

A first key aspect of the VDS project is that it depends on the use of something called a pedagogical analogical model, such as the theoretical framework shown in Figure 1 for thinking about modern approaches to pedagogical model construction in a classroom setting. This is modified only very slightly from the work of Clement (2000), which was published as part of a special issue of the International Journal of Science Education focused on the use of models in science education.

Figure 1: Pedagogical analogical modeling – a framework for thinking about modern approaches to model construction for learning (from Clement, 2000)

The framework is intended to provide guidance to teachers by connecting concepts such as an expert consensus model, a target learning model, intermediate models used in the classroom, preconceptions, and learning processes. It explains how models of increasing sophistication can be used to support the learning process in science education. Clement (2000) draws analogy between the use of these models in a classroom and the ways in which they are used by expert scientists, and he argues that they are important because of “the suspicion that conceptual models help people attain ‘conceptual understanding’ in science at a level that goes beyond memorized facts, equations or procedures.” This is explored in some detail in that work with the goals of helping people understand what they are doing in the classroom and framing the future work of teachers and researchers.

The framework was extended in Bruton (2016) to apply to the process people go through when learning how to design opportunities, as they might when coming up with ideas for a project, starting a new business, writing a business case for the purposes of getting funding – or as my classroom students do in the VDS project. The extended framework is shown in Figure 2, the top portion of which is no different than the one shown in Figure 1. The horizontal axes in both figures reflect how models with increasing levels of sophistication can help learners gain a conceptual understanding in entrepreneurship at a level that goes beyond memorization. However, the framework in Figure 2 is different from that in Figure 1 because it includes another dimension in which learning takes place. This is depicted by the vertical axis in Figure 2.

Figure 2: An extension of the pedagogical analogical modeling concept for entrepreneurial learning (from Bruton, 2016)

To understand the difference between the two axes of the framework in Figure 2, first imagine that one’s goal is to teach students about new businesses and about the process of new business creation. One could design a learning process in which they are required to build increasingly sophisticated models of the underlying opportunity, e.g. one could task students with creating an idea model (M1 in Figure 1 and Figure 2), then a business model (M2), and then a business plan (M3) for a certain business concept. While this could definitely help them gain an understanding of the underlying concepts represented by idea models, business models and business plans, it could still be quite disconnected from whether or not the underlying business is in fact “any good”. For example, you can learn about and understand concepts related to businesses without yours being a high impact business and without being any good at making sure yours is a high impact business. This is where the vertical axis in Figure 2 comes in. As well as increasing the level of sophistication of the models used in a learning context, we can also design the learning environment such that the underlying business concept being modeled is improved or made better in the ‘real world’ through the learning process itself. Just as the expert scientist makes use of the kinds of models depicted in Figure 1, an innovator who is good a coming up with winning business concepts will make use of the kinds of models depicted in the vertical axis in Figure 2. They will iteratively improve even a simple model (e.g. M1 in Figure 2) until it gets closer to the ideal version of itself (e.g. M1_ideal).

It’s argued in Bruton (2016) that doing this before moving along the horizontal axis to a more sophisticated model can significantly improve the odds of the business idea or concept being of better quality, which brings us to the VDS project that implements a version of this modeling framework. The VDS is designed to take students through a process in which they use the intermediate models Idea Napkin and Idea Model, respectively, as shown in Figure 3. (These and other specific intermediate models have become fairly well accepted in the field of entrepreneurship education. They are available in our toolkit.)

Figure 3: The specific pedagogical analogical model implemented in the Venture Design Studio project in my classes (from Bruton, 2016)

The shaded boxes in Figure 3 show the specific route students take through the overall learning process in one of my typical courses. First they are required to come up with an idea without using a model at all. Then twice more using a first order model. And then two times using a second order model. This learning process is known as Deliberate Opportunity Design and each of these steps in the learning process in Figure 3 constitutes a single iteration in the design process that is shown in Figure 4. In other words, the students go once around the cycle shown in Figure 4 for each step they take in Figure 3. Put in these terms, the desired student learning outcomes include:

1. Understanding the components and building the mental models implied by these pedagogical analogical models (represented by the learning process in the horizontal axis along the top of Figure 3); and

2. Trying to come up with versions of those models that meet certain criteria of “goodness” (represented by the search process in the vertical axis in Figure 3).

Figure 4: Cartoon version of the design thinking process used in the VDS project (from Bruton, 2016 + other previous publications)

Using barrier-causing and threshold concepts as the organizing lens

A second key aspect of the VDS project is that the curriculum is organized according to the entrepreneur’s own learning arc or pathway, and by the thresholds and barriers they are expected to face. An example of this was provided above for the barrier-causing or threshold concepts related to ‘strategic ideation’ and ‘human-centered design’. I ask you to imagine that you received this instead of (or together with) a standard course syllabus or table of contents. The organizational lens isn’t chronological or content-based. Rather, it’s based on the elements believe to be needed to aid or accelerate someone to mastery.

In our field – like most, we normally design curricula and deliver learning environments by taking learners through prescribed experiences on a common schedule, even in the most entrepreneurial classroom, seminar, incubator, accelerator, or consultant-led session. And, in my experience, it’s not unusual in that environment that deep enough learning doesn’t happen at all for some people, e.g. despite hearing and being able to talk about a key barrier concept in class or at entrepreneurial events outside of the classroom, a student might not truly experience and master it in time or in a way that helps them advance their work. It might be the case that they are not able to cross the threshold on their own or with the training available to them. And when these moments of learning do happen I have observed that they occur at very different times for different students, depending on their own specific learning paths, environmental contexts, and personal experiences.

In response to this, I’ve been using the VDS project to informally test the broad hypothesis that we can accelerate engineering students through their key barriers by using the barrier-causing concepts themselves as the organizing lens, i.e. where the student’s own learning arc drives action instead of the modules, chapters, topics, tools we normally put in a class syllabus. In this approach, advancing their own learning requires the students to cross the barriers and thresholds, in turn by developing key ‘innovation literacies’, mastering ‘threshold concepts’, building ‘enduring understandings’, and gaining ‘breakthrough competencies’. (See the bibliography at the end of this for sources and more information about some of these terms.)

I am finding as a result of this that the learning ends up happening in an almost gamified way where the students seek to ‘level up’ rather than just study for the next test or take on the next activity. And, importantly as it relates to this project, this lens on the learning experience also seems to be affording both the student and me a natural opportunity to focus on the process of learning (and not just on its products).

Further reading

Bruton, A. (2010). The Venture Design Studio: From Planning to Design Thinking and Collaborative Knowledge Creation for Highly Innovative New Venture Conception and Communication. Annual World Conference of the International Council for Small Business (ICSB), Cincinnati, June 2010.

Bruton, A. (2016). Deliberate Opportunity Design: A practical integrative product and business design framework to enable new frontiers in fostering innovation and entrepreneurship. In the USASBE Annals of Entrepreneurship Education and Pedagogy, Vol. 2, 176-199.

Clement, J. (2000). Model Based Learning as a Key Research Area for Science Education. International Journal of Science Education. 22(9), 1041-1053.

Stepien, W.J. & Gallagher, S.A. (1993). Problem-based Learning: As Authentic as it Gets. Educational Leadership. 50(7), pp. 25-8.