National Science Foundation Unveils a Startup School Modeled on Steve Blank’s Lean LaunchPad

Incubator madness has reached all the way to Washington, D.C. The National Science Foundation announced today that with the help of private-sector partners, it plans to put at least $5 million per year into a new program, the Innovation Corps or I-Corps, aimed at helping university scientists and engineers build startups around their technologies. The centerpiece of the program: a $50,000 cash award for 25 teams each quarter, plus a nine-week crash course in tech entrepreneurship modeled on the “Lean LaunchPad” course taught at Stanford University this spring by author and retired serial entrepreneur Steve Blank.

“Essentially, this is Y Combinator with a curriculum tailored for the best scientists and researchers this country has to offer,” Blank told me this morning, referring to the Mountain View, CA-based program that is arguably the country’s largest and most prestigious venture incubator. “The goal is, at the end, to have a Demo Day and see if these guys have learned anything, and if they are fundable.”

But on a higher level, the hope is to find way to help NSF-backed researchers with potentially commercial concepts get those ideas out into the marketplace, where they could become the engines for future job growth. “I-Corps will help strengthen a national innovation ecosystem that firmly unites industry with scientific discoveries for the benefit of society,” NSF director Subra Suresh said in a statement announcing the program today.

“I think lots of people—not just the current administration, not just one side of the aisle or the other—have concluded that in the 21st century, job creation is not going to come from existing industries,” Blank says. “We are going to have to create new industries, and the job creation is going to come from innovation and entrepreneurship.”

According to NSF’s announcement today, I-Corps is a public-private partnership with the NSF itself, the Deshpande Foundation, and the Kauffman Foundation as founding members. The program is accepting proposals starting today, and will name its first batch of 25 awardees on September 30. Teams must consist of at least one principal investigator—usually a university faculty member—to act as technical lead and project manager, and at least one postdoctoral researcher or graduate student to act as the “entrepreneurial lead.”

But the I-Corps program isn’t open to just anyone—the PI on each team must already have received at least one NSF grant in the last five years. And unlike most NSF grants, the I-Corps awards come with a big string attached: awardees are required to … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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