NextEnergy, U-M Gear Up for 2nd Energy and Transportation Bootcamp

When the Steve Blank-designed I-Corps program was started by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2012, its purpose was to teach university researchers to think like entrepreneurs and help them bring their inventions to market.

The University of Michigan’s Center for Entrepreneurship heads the state’s I-Corps program, and now it has renewed a partnership with Detroit nonprofit NextEnergy for the second year on an I-Corps training program with a customized curriculum focused on transportation and energy.

I-Corps Energy and Transportation concentrates on university, national lab, and federally funded R&D, said Jean Redfield, president and CEO of NextEnergy, a nonprofit business development organization and energy-sector technology accelerator. (The application deadline has been extended to April 12, and Redfield said that’s a “hard close,” meaning it won’t be extended again.)

The customized I-Corps curriculum is needed, she said, because energy and transportation have long, capital-intensive development cycles. “It’s not the same as software development,” she pointed out.

Redfield said this year’s group of participants will gather at NextEnergy in Detroit on April 29 for a kickoff event, and they’ll spend May 11-13 and June 22-23 together testing their ideas. In between, participants will receive mentorship and watch webinars before embarking on the intense customer discovery work that is the cornerstone of Blank’s lean startup philosophy. “It’s like squishing a semester course down into seven or eight weeks,” she said.

At the end of the I-Corps training, participants will pitch their ideas in front of an invited audience of industry experts and investors. Though there is no formal matchmaking done between the startups and industry, Redfield said it happens informally throughout the program.

“The goal is to make the call of go or no go,” she said, adding that, ideally, weak ideas will fail quickly. “They figure out how to proceed, or they pivot if the value proposition is not accurate. It’s as much about stopping something that doesn’t work as it is about building smart startups.”

According to Redfield, teams that have gone through the I-Corps program have a much better record of attracting funding. “It really does hone their focus and create a language to work with customers effectively,” she added.

After it went through the program last year, Na4B, a Rochester, MI-based startup developing electrolyte material for sodium-based batteries, scored a $1 million Phase II SBIR grant from the NSF. Redfield said I-Corps helped the company figure out where its technology fit in the battery supply chain, which was integral to its successful grant application.

Redfield said last year’s I-Corps Energy and Transportation program was done as an experiment, but she considers it a success. With 17 teams participating in 2014, she hopes this year’s group will be even bigger and better, allowing startups to pick the brains of potential customers and industry leaders while getting insight from investors and government officials along the way.

“The I-Corps program is one piece of a well-developed ecosystem to support research and feed the commercial pipeline,” Redfield said. “It helps [scientists] break out of research for research’s sake.”

The Energy and Transportation training program’s partners also include the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, U.S. Department of Energy, Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, Clean Energy Trust, and Midwest Energy Technology Accelerator.

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