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Tell Me More: A Conversation with Your I-Corps Team

Cira Cardaci is Manager of the NY I-Corps Hub. Previously, she was a co-founder of a women’s health technology startup. Cira received her bachelor’s at Wagner College and her master’s in translational medicine from the City College of New York. She is also an adjunct lecturer at CCNY in the Biomedical Engineering Department.

Where did you grow up and what sparked your interest in entrepreneurship?

I grew up on Staten Island and now live in Brooklyn, so I have always been a New Yorker! The master’s program from which I graduated, and the CUNY I-Corps course that I now teach, sparked my initial interest in entrepreneurship. I became obsessed with the revelation that someone could observe or experience a problem that they are passionate about and make it their career to go out and solve it. I’ve always gravitated towards creative projects, and I think tech entrepreneurship is where scientists get to have fun. That said, it requires hard work and can present frequent failures, which is why the passion for the mission is essential.


What motivated you to become an I-Corps instructor?

My main motivation came from being a student of the program itself and personally benefiting from the experiential learning component both as a startup and an evolving entrepreneur. As part of the Master’s in Translational Medicine Program at CCNY, I participated in a semester-long Lean LaunchPad course while developing a wearable device for menopause symptom management. After that, I participated in the National I-Corps cohort as an EL and really fell in love with practice of customer discovery. I started volunteering with the NY I-Corps teaching team and eventually took on a full-time role.


I appreciate how I-Corps teaches you to ask unbiased questions to get answers to questions you didn’t even know you should be asking! When I was doing the national I-Corps cohort, I was conducting interviews in the health care space. It was so important to gain an understanding of how to ask questions of patients versus physicians, and how to capture insights from their very different answers about the same experiences. It’s hard to stop doing customer discovery; I find myself continuing to do it even without an explicit product to research.


What question do you wish entrepreneurs asked?


We always tell entrepreneurs to ask “why,”—it’s such an important and powerful question for the people you are interviewing. But a potential follow-up question is to ask “how?”—of the teaching team and the ecosystem of resource providers in NYC and New York State. It’s not just, “we have this idea,” but how are we going to bring it forward and who will help us bring this forward? Teams are often trying to hack through it by themselves and NY entrepreneurs are resilient so they’ll likely figure it out, but we hope that asking us for help could mitigate risk and open unforeseen opportunities.


After learning about so many different customer markets, can you share a market or customer challenge that still requires a solution? 

I’m passionate about problems in healthcare and efforts to solve the challenges of the climate crisis. I’ve become increasingly interested in solutions that pose alternatives to using plastic in manufacturing, shipping, and textiles. There’s so much opportunity for innovation in that area. I also see opportunity in healthcare data management which many are working to solve. That said, the challenges facing larger ecosystems, such as healthcare and climate, often need to be solved with the support of systemic change. 


What’s the biggest surprise you’ve experienced as an I Corps instructor?

I’ve been surprised by how much I enjoy being on the instructor side!  Back when I was going through so many iterations of entrepreneurial training, I wanted to succeed, but I didn’t understand the perspectives of the teachers. Now I understand why folks want to teach and mentor and see others succeed. My approach to mentorship and teaching young entrepreneurs it that it is ok to not have all the answers, or the right answers. I don’t want to put them on the spot, but to help them to go out and find answers. I also enjoy helping with presentation tactics, leadership skills, and confidence building, as these were the skills I struggled with as a new founder and the CUNY I-Corps team really helped me build toward those at the time. I like to focus on the details that can impact the process and motivate them to keep going. 


What do you wish people knew about the I-Corps program before they start?

The main point of the process is to develop a foundational skillset, but it’s ok if participants don’t fully develop the skills or finish testing their hypotheses during a given class. That holds for any training program. Developing a skill set should continue after the course—if they continue to pursue entrepreneurship, the training doesn’t stop with I-Corps. I-Corps offers an organized way to teach and develop customer discovery skills and get the most useful data, as well as how to work within a team and determine who should be on that team. I-Corps is a small testbed for how an entrepreneur will progress, but ideas, teams, and markets continue to develop.


What advice would you give to all I-Corps participants?

My advice is to plan ahead; have a game plan or an industry or sector you want to research but be ok with scrapping that plan and researching something new. Also, take advantage of the support of the cohort while you are looking at something you would never have thought to explore. Many teams are sure they know who they are building their product for, and they don’t want to let go—even if the data are saying otherwise. Sometimes founders have a dream market or use case that they are scared to test. So, don’t be afraid to look at the wildest application of what you are researching; don’t be afraid to push beyond what you originally created your tech or concept to do.


Can you share a recent accomplishment?

I have a role in the NYC Innovation Hot Spot as well, and I recently presented with our team in Dallas at a meeting of the Global Consortium of Entrepreneurship Centers. We presented on the outcomes of a course we created with the with NY I-Corps Hub and the Hot Spot, targeting high tech community inventors—offering programming for the broader community as well as academic participants. I’m also excited about the post-I-Corps resources we’ve begun to provide to teams, such as targeted next step workshops for intellectual property. 


I also co-run a sustainable athleisure clothing company that I started during COVID. We sell organic clothing and clothing made from recycled materials. We try to keep our manufacturing in the U.S., and always make sure our products are ethically sourced and produced under fair working conditions. I’m hoping to enable our company to become even more local than it is now, utilizing some of the resources of the New York ecosystem.


What are you reading (or hoping to read soon)?

I recently read Alan Patricof’s book, No Red Lights. He’s a top VC guy and it’s fully of his best practices from the field. I am looking forward to reading All We Can Save, a collection of essays from female activists in the climate space.


What do you do to relax?

I do a lot of thrifting—my best advice for scouring thrift shops is don’t be afraid to dig! And always stop at that estate sale. My favorite thrift shop in NYC is L Train Vintage. The best score I ever got was a midcentury dresser that I love—I got that at a Salvation Army in New York. 


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