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How One Incubator Is Using Behavioral Science to Encourage the Products Customers Really Want Essay

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Most incubators focus on the logistics of developing a necessary product, cultivating customers and grabbing market share. But Duke University’s Social Science Research Institute is home to a new incubator for startups interested in using behavioral-change research to more accurately determine which products and services customers will want.

Led by Dan Ariely, the behavioral economist who runs the institute’s Center for Advanced Hindsight, the Startup Lab will pilot its first class of entrepreneurs building health and financial decision-making tools this fall. Participating founders—who need not be affiliated with Duke—will spend three to nine months at the lab.

“It’s an academic incubator,” explains Ariely, who’s no stranger to the startup world, having co-founded the time-management app Timeful, now a Google tool. “We want to give people a place to breathe and think and be a bit deeper. It’s really about giving them time to hopefully develop something better.” For example, he points out, if entrepreneurs can build better tools to encourage people to exercise and eat well, they should be able to charge more for those tools.

The program will teach founders to incorporate consumer-behavior research into the design of their products and services and to

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test each iteration using scientifically proven methods, Ariely says. Participants will receive office space and equipment, an operating budget and IT support. They’ll also receive mentorship from Duke’s business and engineering schools and will be able to hobnob with Duke’s angel network of alumni investors and startups.

Ariely expects the incubator to be beneficial to founders and academics alike. “I’m hoping to give people an understanding of what we know already, to integrate it with what they’re doing and then create a road map for things that we need to start researching,” he says.

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