National Science Foundation Scales Up Entrepreneurship Program

The National Science Foundation said today that it will fund a major expansion of its Innovation Corps program, an effort to teach NSF-funded university researchers how to build profitable startups around their technologies.

In its initial stages, the two-year-old “I-Corps” program has been flying researchers to Stanford University, the University of Michigan, and Georgia Tech for prototype versions of the “Lean Launchpad” course originally developed at Stanford by serial entrepreneur and startup guru Steve Blank. Now the program is spreading to nine more universities, which have been singled out for three-year grants totaling $11.2 million.

The universities have banded together in three regional consortia centered in the San Francisco Bay Area, the New York City area, and the DC-Maryland-Virginia region. In each region, consortia members plan to shepherd teams of local researchers through the Lean LaunchPad process, with the goal of increasing the success rate for scientists hoping to commercialize their government-funded discoveries.

When I reached Blank at his Pescadero ranch today, he was ecstatic about the I-Corps program’s expansion, which he sees as a needed antidote to older, less effective commercialization strategies. “This is not only doubling down, but massively scaling,” he said. “This is now not just a weird Steve Blank experiment—this is what we are really going to do” to develop scientific and engineering breakthroughs into useful technologies.

The first NSF grant of $3.75 million will go to a Bay Area consortium that includes the University of California, Berkeley, Stanford University, and the University of California, San Francisco. This regional program will be led by Blank himself, working with Richard Lyons of Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

The second grant, also for $3.75 million, will go to the University of Maryland, George Washington University, and Virginia Tech. Dean Chang, director of the MTECH Ventures initiative at the University of Maryland, will lead that consortium.

The third grant of $3.74 million will go to the City University of New York, New York University, and Columbia University. Gillian Small, vice chancellor for research at CUNY, will be the principal investigator in that effort.

In the NSF announcement, Errol Arkilic, the I-Corps program director at NSF, called the three regional consortia “the foundation of a national innovation ecosystem” intended to boost the rate at which government-funded basic research is translated into commercial ventures.

Steve Blank

Steve Blank

For decades, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy, and other government R&D agencies have supported commercialization mainly by setting aside 2 to 3 percent of their research budgets for Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grants. This money was intended to encourage collaboration between small businesses and research institutions.

But the SBIR and STTR programs have never worked as well as they should have, at least in Blank’s estimation, because the researchers involved have lacked training in basic startup skills such as customer development—the process of refining a product based on feedback from potential customers.

Customer development is just one of the elements of Blank’s Lean LaunchPad course, which has now been taught at dozens of universities and turned into an online course at Udacity. The course might be described as one-third entrepreneurship class, one-third mutual support group, and one-third startup accelerator.

The I-Corps expansion boils down to “my curriculum replicated at 11 major universities,” Blank says. “We prototyped the class at Stanford, then taught it at Georgia Tech and the University of Michigan to see whether this stuff could be taught without me. Not only does it work without me, I think the NSF is showing a vote of confidence that it will work at a much bigger scale.”

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

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