Scientists Morph Into Entrepreneurs Through NSF I-Corps Program

In a grand test of whether the Silicon Valley startup accelerator model can help university scientists get promising new technologies to market faster, 21 teams hand-picked for the National Science Foundation’s new Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program converged on the Stanford University campus last week. The goal: to review the progress they’d made during an eight-week crash course in entrepreneurship, and share the details of their newly battle-tested business models with a panel of NSF leaders and venture capital partners.

I sat in for the first half of the review session, which took place Wednesday at Stanford’s School of Engineering, and listened to presentations on everything from hydrophobic materials for preventing ice buildup on airplane wings to a method for growing transparent sheets of graphene that could be used in next-generation computer displays. It’s too early to say how many of these innovations will turn up in the marketplace—but it was remarkable to see how thoroughly the traditional walls between academia and business had melted away in the minds of the program participants.

It all made for an event unlike any demo day I’ve seen before. The I-Corps teams—who hailed from Seattle, Tucson, Pittsburgh, Boston, and everywhere in between—were the antithesis of the hip, young, polished entrepreneurs you see coming out of venture incubators like Y Combinator or TechStars. Instead, these were geeks on a mission: bench scientists who are convinced that businesses can be built around the technologies they’ve invented, and who’ve decided to take the leap themselves rather than wait for a corporate licensee to wander along, as in the old model of university technology transfer.

For most of these scientists, the I-Corps program was their first real exposure to the startup mindset, and they had plenty of self-deprecating stories to share about the lessons they’d learned while talking with potential customers. One University of Connecticut team developing a nanocomposite material for explosives detection had pivoted not once but twice—from a landmine-detector product to an airport security product, then back to landmines. “The most important thing we learned from I-Corps is how important getting out of the building is,” principal investigator Yu Lei said.

It was no accident that that phrase—“getting out of the building”—came up in every presentation I saw. It’s practically been trademarked by Steve Blank, the serial entrepreneur famous around Silicon Valley for his “customer development” methodology, which says that the highest priority for any startup is to gather feedback from potential customers and continually refine its product or its target market or both until it finds a fit. NSF officials tapped Blank to lead the I-Corps program after watching him teach customer development to students in his “Lean LaunchPad” course at Stanford.

The teams chosen for the I-Corps program—each of which consisted of at least one principal investigator with a history of NSF grant-getting, one younger “entrepreneurial lead” (typically a graduate student or postdoc), and one business mentor—first came to Stanford in October for a few days of startup bootcamp. They were then sent home with instructions to get out, talk to customers, and, if necessary, throw out their original business models and start over. Last week’s session was both an opportunity to share what they’d learned and an audition for Phase II of the program, in which a few of the teams will be selected for NSF grants to help them continue their commercialization efforts.

How well did the teams adapt to customer-development thinking? “I think they hit it out of the park,” Blank told me at the review session.

The evidence was in the before-and-after “business model canvases” that each team shared during their presentations. An invention of strategy consultant Alexander Osterwalder, a business model canvas is a template that helps fledgling startup teams envision who their most natural customers are, how they’ll deliver value to those customers, and how they’ll manage costs, revenues, and partnerships. With help from mentors, and with feedback from the more than 2,000 prospective customers they interviewed during the eight-week program, the I-Corps teams redrew their canvases multiple times, always with the goal of eliminating early, incorrect hypotheses and zeroing in on the markets most receptive to their ideas.

Because the I-Corps scientists are only human, they showed “a spectrum of receptivity” to the idea of interviewing customers and continuously tweaking their business plans, said Errol Arkilic, the NSF program officer overseeing the I-Corps project. “But the mechanism that they are using is actually very similar to the scientific method. It is a hypothesis-driven test, but instead of doing it on the lab bench, they are taking it and applying it to market uncertainty, market unknowns.”

By and large, the NSF officers monitoring the I-Corps program were “blown away” by the teams’ progress, Arkilic said. “We think the hypothesis we had that Steve’s method would translate well [to university research] is being proven,” he said.

The NSF partnered on the I-Corps project with the Kauffman Foundation and the Deshpande Foundation, and has a $5 million annual budget for the program. Plans are already in place to repeat the program next year with two new groups of scientist-entrepreneurs.

Even the teams that don’t receive Phase II, follow-on grants will be in a much stronger position to apply for other types of grants, such as Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants, said Arkilic, a former SBIR program manager. “Some of these teams have made more progress in understanding what their opportunity is and repositioning their effort in six weeks than projects we’ve supported for six months,” he said.

I only saw half of last week’s presentations, but they covered a wide swath of technologies. The full list of 2011 I-Corps teams is here; below are my quick summaries of the technologies being developed by the companies I saw.

TexCone (University of Virginia, Charlottesvile: Laser-treated hydrophobic surfaces for reducing ice buildup on aircraft wings.

Ion Express (UCLA): Cheaper, simpler ion channel screening test systems for pharmaceutical companies.

BigData (George Washington University): Data mining for intelligence agencies and hedge-fund analysts.

Carbon Cultures (University of Washington): Conversion of timber waste into “biochar” for soil amendment.

Explosives Detection (University of Connecticut, Storrs): Nanocomposite materials that change their appearance under ultraviolet light when exposed to explosives.

Fluid Synchrony (USC): Miniaturized, implantable drug infusion pumps for control of chronic pain.

BiddingPal/iDecideFast (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign): Online tools based using psychological and decision science insights to help real-estate buyers and auction participants maximize their changes of submitting a winning bid.

Ground Fluor Pharmaceuticals (University of Nebraska, Lincoln): A cheaper, simpler system for synthesizing the radiopharmaceutical agents injected into patients before PET scans.

TOSCA (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute): “Terahertz on silicon chip arrays” for defense, aerospace, and security applications that require very fast on-chip processing.

GlucoSentient (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign): Technology that tweaks existing glucose meters to test for other health indicators such as HbA1C, a marker of diabetes.

Graphene Frontiers (University of Pennsylvania): A chemical vapor deposition method for growing sheets of carbon atoms on plastic or glass, for use as transparent conductors in solar panels, smart windows, or advanced displays.

Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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7 responses to “Scientists Morph Into Entrepreneurs Through NSF I-Corps Program”

  1. Huge fan of the customer development model and Steve’s philosophy of “getting out of the building”. When I learned about his approach and read his book, it transformed my thinking about developing a customer and market model. 4 Steps to Epiphany is never far away.

  2. Glad to see Carbon Culture and the biochar in here.