Keeping An Eye On American Innovation: The I-Corps Program

editor’s notes: the Term I-Corps is a registered trademark. Citation numbers within the text are indicated within (bold italic parenthesis).

One week in April while American Idol was signing off after 15 years of entertaining millions I was conducting interviews with program leaders from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF) for the Entrepreneurship Essentials article series (1). The purpose of the exercise began (ironically) like that epochal TV program, trying to identify what it takes to truly be an American Idol — The Entrepreneur.

One of the conversations I had was with Christie Canaria, PhD. of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) regarding the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, the other with Lydia McClure, PhD. (NSF I-Corps Program Director) and Chinonye “Chi Chi” Nnawke, PhD. — AAAS S&T policy fellow serving NSF I-Corps program (and SACNAS member, full disclosure). The primary purpose of the discussions was to gain further insight on how the SBIR/STTR and I-Corps programs were tracking UnderRepresented (UR) scientists, and what measures were being undertaken to increase participation in the programs. Together each interviewee and agency provided copious and enough in-depth information regarding the NSF’s I-Corps program, that it warranted its own blog post! Below are edited notes from the interviews and replies to my questions:

The NSF I-Corps Program Interview

April 8, 2016

Right now the NSF employs two methods for tracking ethnicities of participants through the I-Corps program:

• Principle Investigator (PI) of the 3-person team (PI, entrepreneur lead, mentor from potential industry) submits a proposal (after ad hoc review) via NSF form indicating racial and ethnic minority, disability, 3rd gender. This process is automated.

• The second method began 16 months ago through VentureWell, which acts as a logistical partner for I-Corps.

Chi Chi is very interested in broadening participation in I-Corps (which is one of her goals for the AAAS S&T policy fellowship (2)). It is an ambitious project to broaden underrepresented groups’ participation at the team, institutional (nodes and sites), and course instructor level.

The Program Is Interested To:

• help Scientists & Engineers explore whether or not their research could be commercialized and turned into a successful company
• change the culture within academia (applied research and experiments) — teach institutions about “design thinking” and incorporating an “entrepreneurial mindset”
• help NSF realize a Return On Investment from academic grants.
This image comes from the steve blank story describing the “first” phone call with the NSF

The anatomy of an I-Corps team: scientists (PI, and UnderGrad or Grad or Postdoc) are paired with an Industry mentor. Participating teams receive the intensive startup ‘Lean Launchpad’ curriculum (originally designed by Steve Blank for Stanford undergrads) at the institutional site or through nodes (regional networks) for 7-weeks (3). The end goal is to help teams “identify the value in what they are offering and engage with 100 potential customers through interviews for feedback in the product the team is developing.”

I-Corps started in 2011 but no one thought this would pick up traction (kind of like a startup). It is still evolving. Lydia made a critical point that there is no shortage of funding mechanisms for Entrepreneurs (especially on academic campuses).

A Program That Really Benefits Students And Postdocs

Lydia echoed the discourse heard on academic campuses that Science and Engineering Grad students and Postdocs are “falling through the cracks of entrepreneurial support. And that’s really where I-Corp found its sweet spot.” The PIs don’t have this issue since they are receiving support from their institution’s licensing office.

The I-Corps program really has evolved to “empower graduate students and postdocs to take on risk and be aware of what that risk is”. Lydia emphasized that the program is NOT a mini-MBA program nor do they dole out advice but rather coach teams to ask the right questions to find the answers for their ideas.

Lydia encourages students to work with partners and not to go at it alone because “100% of 0 will always be 0. But if they want to work with other people they can get at least 80–30% of ‘a lot’ going forward”. “It doesn’t help the cause if an entrepreneur wants to go at it alone. There’s nothing wrong with getting external help, in fact it’s absolutely necessary.”

NSF I-Corps Core Strengths

Through its own analysis NSF realized that no two institutions are similar — there is no standard format on how to file IP or Conflict of Interest. What the NSF has done really well is help entrepreneurs form questions and develop a support network to help negotiate IP and avoid legal snafus.

Lydia emphasizes that the I-Corps philosophy is to teach and apply the ‘Scientific Method’ to starting a business and identify ‘Product-Market’ fit. Startups won’t survive if there are no customers. Simple. And even when startups find the customer there needs to be a value proposition for that customer. That’s why they ask students, PI and mentor to do 100 interviews with potential customers — to identify value proposition. If they find there is not a need after meeting with all those potential customers, then that’s a pretty good indicator that their idea/product just isn’t going to happen.

Time well spent is money well $aved

Program participants are also taught to understand the risks of the venture and develop a commercialization strategy. Sometimes they may realized that the opportunity or plan wasn’t strong enough to move forward, so now they could rework their plan and process, or stop all together. Go/No-Go decision making at its best! This also helps the innovator evaluate the next project/idea. Participants in the program continuously point out that this is such a valuable aspect of the program: “potentially saving three years of work in three weeks”, Lydia added.

The labs that I-Corps work with also have complex funding strategies so they may also require a combination of dilutive, non-dilutive and debt financing (banks). Almost every program coming out of a university has such a high capital need that the typical VC [Venture Capital] model may not work. For example, many Biomedical therapeutics skip non-dilutive and Angel stage and go straight to VC, then IPO, then acquisition. Each industry is different (that’s the value of having an industry mentor — they understand the trends).

I-Corps also implicitly deflects the money and investment issue pretty much until the last few days of the 7-week course. Lydia: “Money will always show up if there is a good product-market fit and a large opportunity”.

Tracking UnderRepresented (UR) innovators within the program

Lydia: I-Corps is tracking all of that information and really wants to make sure they are reaching out to UR scientists and engineers. The challenge is ensuring the info is disseminated to those populations. Not all institutions support commercialization at the same level either.

There are few programs which support UR scientists and engineering innovators but a lot of programs supporting Entrepreneurs in general. For example, there are corporate investors, corporate innovation labs, State level investors. The program facilitates participants to identify which funding mechanism/s is the right one for them because the problem with abundance is that “there is a lot of noise and not everyone knows which one is right for them”. Different stages of the enterprise have different funding levels and appropriateness for support. She encourages SACNAS/GV to make all those options available.

Chi Chi asks: Will SACNAS or GV be creating a series for Entrepreneurship?GV: Yes, or I may create a blog separate from SACNAS. [I did, and it is the one which you are now reading]

Chi Chi also pointed out that her other role is to identify partnerships to help expand the program and outreach to populations traditionally underrepresented in STEM.

NSF plans to host (possibly in March 2017) an “Inclusive Entrepreneurship” Summit to empower instructors from various sites and nodes to outreach to underserved populations and highlight best practices. FYI, next VentureWell OPEN (4) will be in D.C. March, 2017.

• Connect the communities to the program and innovation network. Bring in organizations that could someday become an I-Corps site (train how to write a competitive proposal to be a host site).

• Targeting Veterans, Ethnic and Racial Minorities, 1st generation background, low income, LGBTQ, immigrants.

Chi Chi also wants to develop social media and blogging to really understand what the landscape is for entrepreneurs and aspiring ones, especially those coming from UR backgrounds. Silicon Valley has such a low amount of diversity — we need to get some perspective from those UR scientists who are actually doing it.

The NIH I-Corps Program

April 9, 2016

GV asked Dr.Canaria: How is the NIH I-Corps program different than the NSF’s program? Is it geared towards faculty innovators or small business?

Official correspondence from the NCI SBIR Development Center (5): “The expanded I-Corps at NIH program is focused on educating researchers and technologists on how to translate technologies from the lab into the marketplace. Participating NIH Institutes and Centers will provide administrative supplement awards to a cohort of currently-funded SBIR and STTR Phase I grantees to support entrepreneurial immersion training under the I-Corps at NIH Program. The program is designed to provide three-member project teams with access to instruction and mentoring in order to accelerate the translation of technologies currently being developed with NIH and CDC SBIR and STTR funding. It is anticipated that outcomes for the I-Corps teams participating in this program will include significantly refined commercialization plans and well-informed pivots in their overall commercialization strategies.

The NIH I-Corps program was developed in close collaboration with the NSF. Therefore, the two programs share structural similarities:

· 8-week program (approximate)
· 3-member teams
· Emphasis on customer discovery activities (100+ interviews over the course)
· Curriculum delivered by instructors from the NSF National Innovation Network
· The focus is on teaching teams the tools they need to develop, test and validate their business models and determine whether there is a need, demand and market for their technologies.

There are key differences, however:

· NIH teams are comprised of active SBIR/STTR Phase I awardees.
Whereas NSF teams are typically academics, NIH teams are companies who have received a prior SBIR or STTR Phase I grant from one of the participating Institute/Centers from NIH/CDC
· The NIH team members include a C-Level Corporate Officer; a Program Director/Principal Investigator (PI/PD); and an Industry Expert

End of interviews — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

Exit, Stage Left

In closing, I learned in ninety-one minutes much more about opportunities the US government provides for entrepreneurs than ever expected. However, through these interviews it became alarmingly evident that one of the primary challenges in increasing UR talent to participate in the innovation economy and apply for the SBIR/STTR/I-Corps programs was providing general awareness about the programs to the UR scientists and engineering community. Recognizing this hurdle (opportunity) was ultimately what led to the creation of this blog and the professional development session “Entrepreneurship Essentials II: Securing Government Grants for Startups” at 2016 SACNAS. For those who are unaware, or just need a reminder, SACNAS is the premier science and mentoring organization in the United States that advances and fosters underrepresented and under-utilized talent to achieve positions of leadership in science. For more information and personal stories subscribe to their Medium blog or visit their website.

Again, thank you Christie, Jesus, Lydia, and Chi Chi for speaking (in person and via web conference call) on behalf of the NIH and NSF and learning how we can all work together to improve society. Now back to honing my guitar skills and delving further into the American startup ecosystem.

*To find out more about the SBIR/STTR start here

*And now for the I-Corps program links from the NSF and VentureWell







American Idol contestant and rock star @ColtonDixon getting sound startup advice from Master Yoda “Do, or Do Not, There is no Try”