The Value of the I-Corps Program
My Experience as an I-Corps Mentor
As a new advisor in a co-curricular collegiate program to assist students with developing business ideas (LaunchNET Kent State), I knew I had a lot of cool new opportunities ahead of me, even though I had already been an entrepreneur myself, as well as an advisor of sorts to many others.
One of the most fascinating experiences this past Fall was mentoring two of our student clients in the Innovation-Corps (“I-Corps”) Program, sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The big idea of the program is to help scientists who may have a viable technology start to understand the applicability of that technology.
Each of the 9 participating teams is composed of a Principal Investigator (usually a professor engaged in the research), an Entrepreneurial Lead: the student(s) also engaged in the research, and a Mentor, who brings some entrepreneurial experience to the team. I served as the mentor to 2 of our Kent State clients who were participating in the 6-week program at the I-Corps site at The University of Akron, and I was happy to be able to participate in an activity that promoted cross-campus collaboration between our schools.
Business Concepts for Scientists
I share the YouTube video above because it very much reminds me of the first day with the I-Corps group. Unlike my students, who already had some entrepreneurial experience, the rest of the participants were graduate students in the hard sciences whose main activities are conducted in a lab. They are seriously focused on what they’re developing in the lab (understandably) and don’t have the experience of looking at what they’ve developed from many other angles.
And this is the underlying point of the program. To use a theme that was spoken many times each week, “Don’t focus on the technology, focus on finding out the problems your target customers have and then see if your technology can solve that.” Most of the teams came in at the beginning with ideas about how their discoveries might be used in the marketplace, but had no idea whether it was a realistic idea or not.
The focus on the curriculum is “getting out of the building” — interviewing actual potential customers to find out what problems they really do have, instead of working from assumptions about them. These insights allow the students to learn how to talk (to non-scientists) about the potential uses of the technology, as well as information that will help them determine feasibility and pricing.
Bridging the Gap Between the Lab & the Boardroom
By going through the I-Corps sites program, these students are not only much more prepared to address the real-world applications of the technological advances they have worked on, but give them valuable experience with businesses and people who could become customers. The program also includes some funding options, as well as access to the larger pool of NSF funding opportunitities.
As a mentor, I thoroughly enjoyed the process of assisting not only my mentees, but the other students participants with their presentations and providing information and potential contacts to advance their work.
Any student with a technology or new idea could benefit from the knowledge gained by the I-Corps Sites training. We also encourage research faculty members to reach out and encourage their student assistants who are interested in learning about the applicability of their work.
If you are interested in finding out how to get involved with either LaunchNET Kent State or the I-Corps program, reach out and of course I’d be happy to help!