Mini-I-Corps Program Yields Big Results

Guest Post by Pasquale Ferrari

You’ve likely heard of AmeriCorps, and of course the Peace Corps, but did you know that there’s also an Innovation Corps™, or I-Corps?

A program of the National Science Foundation and part of the National Innovation Network, the I-Corps enables scientists and engineers in academia to connect with entrepreneurs and established companies to strengthen the nation’s innovation infrastructure. With the passage of the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act in January 2017, the I-Corps has been expanded “to promote entrepreneurship education, training, and mentoring of federally-funded researchers.” The program operates from eight university-based “nodes” across the country. One such node is composed of the University of Maryland along with regional partners Johns Hopkins University, Virginia Tech and George Washington University. A new workshop offered by the University of Maryland’s Academy for Innovation and Entrepreneurship aims to streamline the I-Corps process, as Pasquale Ferrari, assistant director for licensing in the university’s Office of Technology Commercialization, explains in the following article, adapted from the July/August 2017 issue of the CIMS Innovation Management Report.

Rapidly changing market dynamics arising from globalization and greater automation has created a resurgence of interest in entrepreneurship among the generation of students soon to graduate and compete in the new economy.

Likewise, local and state governments are seeking alternative sources of economic development to counter the negative impacts that often result from rapid market changes. Many find that utilizing the creativity and relatively untapped power of university faculty and graduate students can boost the local economy by creating new opportunities, including jobs.

Despite the success we have had with I-Corps, many universities have found it difficult to engage faculty in the program because of the required six-week commitment. Consequently, the University of Maryland, through its Academy for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, has adopted a streamlined, mini-I-Corps workshop called UMD Intro to I-Corps.

This workshop expands the Academy’s goal of providing entrepreneurship education to all UMD students who, regardless of their declared major, must complete some type of entrepreneurship study prior to graduation. (The Academy has helped the university reach 35 percent of this goal to date.)

Already, the mini-workshop has brought more new technologies out of the lab and into its tech transfer pipeline. The workshop also offers a fresh method for our Office of Technology Commercialization to engage its faculty and staff in the tech transfer process, commercialize intellectual property, and adapt to newer models of academic technology transfer.

Compressed I-Corps

To prepare teams for the national I-Corps cohorts and otherwise to further engage university faculty and students in evidence-based entrepreneurship, NSF encourages the teaching of “short” or “mini” I-Corps courses—which last for about two weeks versus six or seven– among their I-Corps sites.

These mini courses often feature compressed I-Corps content such as an introduction to the Business Model Canvas, while focusing primarily on the Value Proposition and Customer Segment sections, and teaching how to effectively talk to a customer without “selling” your idea. Our UMD mini course consists of a one-day session in which the basics concepts of the lean startup methodology are taught, teams are coached on effective customer interviewing tactics and then told to “get out of the building” with the goal of talking to more than 10 potential industry customers during the first week.

The purpose of such interviews is to help validate the teams’ hypothesized value propositions and customer segments. In week two, teams meet with a class mentor to debrief their interviews and discuss common themes heard during the first week. The teams then seek an additional 10-plus interviews before again meeting with the class mentor and preparing their final presentation of results.

It’s our hope that these short workshops will introduce the concepts of I-Corps to not only better prepare a team for the intense national cohort, but also to provide inventors with enough data to better determine if their product or service idea is worth committing to.

Employing an Intro to I-Corps educational program as part of an effort to increase the licensing of university intellectual property and enhance the formation of university startups can mitigate much of the siloed nature of the tech transfer office. This is accomplished by offering researchers insight into what it takes to develop an effective value proposition, identify an appropriate customer segment, and engage inventors in the process of getting a clear signal from the market that their invention solves a pressing societal problem.

One of the keys to UMD’s success with the Intro to I-Corps Workshop is that it creates a forum where faculty, staff and students can evaluate their inventions side-by-side with a specialist from the tech transfer office. Indeed, the workshop essentially teaches the inventor the tasks performed by the tech transfer office by immersing them in the process, with the result that many learn how to turn a novel invention into a successful product.

UMD has used this new forum to not only increase tech transfer office throughput, but also to enhance and promote its technology and research by other means. The fruits of customer discovery are of value to many other facets of entrepreneurship such as funding proposals and commercialization initiatives.

For example, UMD researchers compete not only with their peers for academic research funding, but also against other regional and national inventors and entrepreneurs for state-sponsored commercialization grants, Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (SBTT) awards, and angel and venture capital investments.

UMD has seen increased success from faculty and graduate student entrepreneurs who have effectively utilized Intro to I-Corps content and customer discovery in applications for such programs as the state’s Maryland Innovation Initiative. NSF has similarly seen improved SBIR award rates among I-Corps graduates.

By extending an invitation to participate in such powerful programming, a tech transfer office can strengthen the relationship with its inventors in a manner that finds improved outcomes not only for the TTO and inventor but for the university and society as well.

Furthermore, offering an Intro to I-corps workshop expands the offerings of services the university provides to faculty and students. Mini I-Corps not only teaches participants how to question potential customers to validate an invention, but also begin to instill the mindset of entrepreneurial thinking that will impact students in whatever career they choose.

A New Paradigm

The NSF created the I-Corps program as a new paradigm for innovative university research and commercialization. Recognizing that NSF is one of the largest sponsors of basic research in the U.S., the I-Corps program intends to better direct basic research to areas that can make a real impact on society. Using an Intro to I-Corps program to help faculty derive the most benefit from their sponsored research has allowed UMD to extend this paradigm shift in basic research funding by gaining more innovations from basic university research.

This approach has already allowed UMD researchers to find other uses for what they thought were mundane results, acquainted graduate students with career choices beyond academic and industry research, and generally spurred interest among local entrepreneurs and angel investors in seeking commercialization opportunities with UMD inventors.

UMD’s workshop has been instrumental in assisting OTC to spin out five university-based startup companies. The workshop has also led inventors to discover that a failed experiment had serious commercial applications and inspired one inventor to find alternative methods of delivering a product or service. These successes stimulate the interest of participating researchers and those around them to engage in evidence-based entrepreneurship, or at the very least be more entrepreneurial in how they think about their core research interests. In short, UMD’s Intro to I-Corps workshop has become an integral program in changing the culture at our university.

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