Can the NSF I-Corps turn great science into startups?

Creating great startups from great science from our leading research universities. Turning scientists into entrepreneurs. Making America more competitive. Nothing less is the target for the new National Science Foundation’s Innovation-Corps program, or I-Corps.

The program brings together three legs of the startup stool: a principal investigator (faculty researcher/inventor), a PhD or post doc student as the entrepreneurial lead who is expected to jump into the startup as a technical executive, and a mentor (or, in my case, two mentors and a four legged startup stool). I-Corps is modeled somewhat after the Kaufmann Foundation’s Fellowship program where training, peer to peer interaction and mentorship bridges the gap from invention to business model for highly technical people who might otherwise not consider a startup as a career choice. The goal is of course to build viable businesses with real products serving real customers.

I-Corps embodies the vision that you can make great business from great science and the man behind the curtain is NSF’s Errol Arkilic, who has been an entrepreneur and walks the talk. Two weeks ago, Errol and his NSF colleagues brought together 24 teams from universities across the US comprising the second I-Corps cohort. And the aim was to give the teams the tools to turn the great science into businesses.

The I-Corps cash award of $50,000 is used to push a project forward towards a viable business model through following the customer development pathway à la lean launchpad methodology. The six-month period flows by intensely from a three-day onsite at Stanford where the teams are inculcated in the art of getting out of the building and talking to customers. The actual instruction is led by Chief Innovation Instructor, Steve Blank, well-known entrepreneur (serial entrepreneur x8, most notably E.phiphany), author (Four Steps to the Epiphany, Not All Those Who Wander are Lost, and, most recently, The Startup Owner’s Manual), and entrepreneurship professor at Stanford (and Berkeley and Columbia).

I went to PaSteve Blank at homelo Alto for three days as an I-Corps mentor for a Carnegie Mellon University project called NeonLabs that we hope will become a fast-growing startup. Our team consisted of Sophie Lebrecht, a Carnegie Mellon post doc in neuroscience, her faculty advisor, Mike Tarr, also a neuroscientist and co-director of the Center for Neuro Basis of Cognition, and Tom Kubulius, another mentor and founder/President of Bright Innovation. Sophie and Mike are one of my own Project Olympus’ PROBEs (PRoblem-Oriented Business Exploration).

Part of the draw of this program for me was to have the chance to work with Steve Blank. As an entrepreneurship prof, I always seek learning and connecting with other like-minded folk who are giving back through teaching their trade. Steve graciously invited me to visit him on Sunday at his lovely home, the K&S Ranch in Pescadero, CA. As I was admiring the architecture, Steve told me that the open floor plan is inspired by the national park lodges that he and his family visited over the years.

Sitting in the cupola of his idyllic custom house facing the Pacific Ocean in all of its frotView from Steve's househy glory, Steve expounded on his philosophy of entrepreneurship. Like some others, notably Eric Ries with his Lean Startup methodology, Steve (mentor to Eric) has a strong sense that entrepreneurship can be more of a science than an art. And much of that science is about finding your customers and ensuring that what you offer meets their needs. Steve’s point is that the only way to find your customers is to talk to them. It’s all part of Steve’s philosophy of customer development that he outlines in his books.

Everything that Steve teaches is open source. And he writes about his students, his philosophy, and the I-Corps on his blog. It seems only appropriate, from one blogger to another, that I blog about Steve’s blog!

As a participant on the inside, I am experiencing first-hand the intense ride of the program as NeonLabs morphs through several business models in search of our product, our value proposition and our market. We started with deep neuroscience technology about the brain that we believed could be used to predict consumer behavior. Now we realize that the technology is background to some near real-time tools that can indeed predict behavior and preferences for certain visual images over others. We know that we have something because as we got out of the building and talked to customers they got excited.

I enjoyed being on the other side of the classroom for the Stanford onsite and am enjoying immensely being a mentor to a young up-and-coming New Venturist as Sophie wends her way through pre-startup madness. It is a frustrating and joyous journey, where we celebrate small wins and push on to the next steps – always moving forward, searching for what this business could really be.

My part in this program as Sophie Lebrechtmentor was spurred not by love of the technology but by my belief that Sophie has what it takes to be an entrepreneur. I told Errol before the program started that I am backing Sophie and I’ll round the corners with her as she pivots in search of a business model. It’s too early to tell if my bet will pay off. In fact, it’s too early to tell if the NSF’s bet with I-Corps will pay off. But it’s a brave program and somebody had to do this – train scientists to talk to customers so that they can use technology to solve real-world problems.

The I-Corps program is half-way through its second cohort and it is picking up steam fast. This summer it runs twice, once at Georgia Tech, once at U Michigan. I suspect it will run at additional universities in the future and hope that CMU will be one of them.

I encourage all who are interested to do their homework on the I-Corps program, but if you are game, go for it. For scientists who want to see innovations make it in the real world, for first-time entrepreneurs, you can’t beat the I-Corps.

Lessons learned:

  • The team is everything. We know this; the I-Corps is mandating it through only accepting teams into the program.
  • An entrepreneurial team for a technology startup needs a strong technical lead, what the I-Corps calls the entrepreneurial lead. The EL is a PhD or post doc who wants the startup route not an academic career. This only works if the EL is really a lead, if they have what it takes to be an entrepreneur.
  • The entrepreneur is NOT a full-time professor unless that prof is prepared to do what it takes to do a startup (and most won’t).
  • The more that a startup (or pre-startup) talks to potential customers, the more that they will pivot and morph their way to a real opportunity.
  • We have great science in our universities. But much of it sits of the shelf waiting for a time in the distant future when the technology is viable. However, there is much need today for the talents of our university researchers. If they will talk to customers first, they can then invent technology solutions to real problems. That’s the basis for a real startup.
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