Many of today's best researchers and scientists need someone to show them the money. They face the same dilemma that alchemists faced centuries ago: how do you turn basic research (a base metal) into a commercially viable business (gold)? The National Science Foundation thinks its innovative I-Corps program will succeed where the alchemists failed. The early results are promising.
The NSF's I-Corps program, now one year into a three-year pilot program, teaches top scientists and engineers how to turn their fundamental research discoveries into successful businesses and jobs.
Teams composed of academic researchers, student entrepreneurs (undergraduates, graduate students and postdocs) and business mentors participate in the six-month program. The curriculum is a hypothesis-based approach to assessing technological readiness that combines two site-based short courses, extensive online coaching and hands-on outreach to potential customers.
The program merges the structured coursework with guidance from NSF program officers and leading entrepreneurs who have committed their time to the program.
"Academic researchers already have many skills valuable for success in business, such as critical thinking, teamwork and an ability to move in a new direction and learn when a hypothesis proves false," said Errol Arkilic, NSF program director for I-Corps. "The NSF I-Corps builds upon that expertise, introducing researchers to the business community and teaching them to seek, and speak to, the needs of potential customers."
Nearly 100 teams participated in the first year of the program and several have already received public and private follow-on investments. In addition, participants have built a novel I-Corps Mentor Network that connects experts from the academic and entrepreneurial communities.
The NSF hopes to expand I-Corps to 200 teams of researchers and business mentors in the coming year. The program is becoming truly national in geography as well as scope by adding Georgia Tech and the University of Michigan as academic nodes for the program. The NSF is also soliciting proposals for new nodes that will serve their regional communities as innovation supporting resources and act as focal points for expanding the national I-Corps network.
"I-Corps is an innovation model that demonstrates the continued strength of the American entrepreneurial spirit," said Dedric Carter, NSF senior adviser for strategic initiatives. "Building on NSF's 60-plus year legacy of investing in basic research and spawning innovation, I-Corps embodies many of the key elements for entrepreneurial achievement and illustrates why our nation is still the world leader for start-up success."