02 Unicorn Labs – a future global movement
Every business starts with a great idea, but not every great idea turns into a business. We met with Mohammed Khouni, cofounder of Unicorn Labs, to talk about his approach on helping young entrepreneurs build a first prototype for their business.
“We always wish to see more ideas coming up.”Mohammed explained during our interview in his working space, the Rocket Hub. “Especially those ideas which otherwise would have failed in their early stage or would have just been abandoned due to the lack of a prototype.”
Having an idea is one thing, but actually executing and validating it by building a functioning prototype is way more challenging. However, it is an essential first step for young entrepreneurs in order to demonstrate desired functionalities to potential clients, gain the necessary interest of investors or just get a better understanding of the product itself. Without a prototype the startup cannot test their idea and pursue it in the long run. Now, how does Unicorn Labs fit in? Unicorn Labs is a nonprofit organization aiming to promote entrepreneurship and help these startups by providing them with their first MVP, a minimal viable product.
How does it work
Over the span of just one weekend, the so-called Breeders, a team of three to five volunteers from different backgrounds, tech or other, come together and try to find a physical solution to the problem their clients presented them with. This session is called a Breeding. Usually it starts on a Friday evening with a Design Thinking workshop where Breeders and entrepreneurs meet up to brainstorm possible prototype executions and make sure to be on the same page about the project.
“During the workshop we start from the initial challenge, diverge into all sorts of possibilities and options and try to converge more and more towards something that is feasible and represents the actual element we aim to validate with the MVP.”
The prototyping happens Saturday and Sunday. This prototype development can range from a few lines of code making up the foundation of an app to a physical contraption using various tools such as 3d-printing, laser-cutting, Arduinos and Raspberry Pi’s. Along the way different productivity and efficiency methods are applied as for example Kanban boards to visualize the tasks at hand and the overall workflow. By the end of the weekend the Breeders present their results.
Here it has to be noted, that not every breeding leads to the desired solution and that Unicorn labs does not necessarily guarantee a working prototype. “The value of it all is getting an answer. Failing along the weekend due to over- or underestimating things is a proper learning for the participants as for the entrepreneur.”
How it all started
Unicorn Labs as it exists today, was never planned, but resulted from a few lucky coincidences. Back in 2016 the three cofounders Mohammed Khouni, Igor Susmelj and Alexander Ens, three ETH students at different stages of their studies, thought about founding their own startup. Despite not having any prior entrepreneurial knowledge they came up with a concept for a waste management system. In just one weekend they developed a prototype, but a quick market evaluation made them stop soon after. Nevertheless, word about their endeavors spread all the way to EHL and as described in the last blog post, the KITRO team asked them for help with their own product. The three students were glad to help and again managed to successfully build a prototype in just one weekend – the first Breeding.
“From there we realized [prototyping] is something we like doing, something we do really well and there are for sure way more people out there in need of a prototype. This is where the whole idea came from”,Mohammed elaborated. “We are a group that is motivated to work on something, and we are more than willing to help out others with their startup and maybe find something interesting along the way.”
Unicorn Labs was born. The initial plan to make it a profitable business was scrapped. “Quickly we realized that [Unicorn Labs] is not going to be a regular business. For one thing our work will be only on weekends which is a difficult thing to keep on a life balance and also because our target audience are young entrepreneurs with limited financials.” Therefore, the three decided to make it a nonprofit organization, offering their services for free, with the clients only having to cover the material costs and food for the weekend. The new approach attracted the attention of various early stage startups such as Shift Devices, Vatorex or WIA (the latter being one of the startups currently in our Rocket Hub), enabling Unicorn Labs to organize further Breedings and improve their innovation strategies to come up with anticipated results – in Mohammed’s words: “Shaping Unicorn Labs as it is today.”
Two years later, the team has more than doubled in size and hosted a total of 25 successful Breeding sessions with a multitude of participants from their vast talent pool consisting mostly of students from ETH or the University of St. Gallen, and young professionals. By partnering up with the ETH Entrepreneur Club in order to use the Rocket Hub as Breeding location and being independent of any external factors, Unicorn Labs lives up to their vision of a lean startup.
“Part of our mission is not only to create prototypes during weekends, but also to inspire people to attempt that journey, to pass on the entrepreneurial spirit and especially get that fear of prototyping off of people.”Organizing speaker events or workshops towards prototyping is one way for Unicorn Labs to get projects not only relying on people with existing ideas but also on others that could, and eventually would get an idea. The value of Unicorn Labs lays not only in the end product but in the whole process of getting there. Participants benefit in so many ways: By helping others launch their success, one can explore the own creativity and capabilities, put knowledge into practice and learn about innovation and entrepreneurship.
The existing desire of people to experience all of this shows itself in Unicorn Labs’ reach. “Very motivated people have heard of us and started building up chapters around the world." With Unicorn Labs already having subsidiaries in Ethiopia and Oxford set up by former members of the organisation the movement has already started to go global.
“I see Unicorn Labs in five years as a working global movement with the same scale Ted has reached”, Mohammed explained. “We see Unicorn Labs already taking place in so many cities and so many people just hearing about it would be thrilled to participate. Furthermore, the audience will always be present as there are always people in need of a prototype and people willing to help out. It is something that should not be limited to Zurich, Switzerland or Europe, but rather accessible all around the world at every major university or city.”
If you have a great idea don’t be afraid of turn it into reality. Join Unicorn Labs’ prototyping movement and who knows, maybe a future unicorn pops out of it. Dream it. Do it.