A national pipeline of university-based researchers schooled in turning ideas into successful commercial products is emerging from what began in 2011 as a small but “audacious” National Science Foundation experiment dubbed I-Corps™ (CIMS IMR, Sept-Oct, 2014, pp.2- 7).
The new “National Innovation Network,” a key component of the I-Corps program, kicked off formally in April 2014 when 100 NIN members convened in Bethesda, Maryland to discuss their innovations and experiences with commercialization. Their progress is summarized here by Bruce Hoppe, a senior program officer at VentureWell, (formerly National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance). Hoppe leads VentureWell’s efforts in I-Corps with a focus on NIN.
This emerging movement of university innovators has grown rapidly into a national network that has spawned 366 design teams to date, and, through regional programs run locally, hundreds more. Over 170 of these creative teams have launched companies since entering the NSF I-Corps program.
The startups I-Corps has made possible include AnchoviLabs, which was acquired by the cloud storage company Dropbox in 2012; Math Snacks, a producer of short educational animations, mini-games and interactive tools that help middle-schoolers better understand math concepts; and Bio-Adhesive Alliance, developer and manufacturer of a low-cost, durable, adhesive substitute for petroleum-based asphalt. National Innovation Network members share more I-Corps stories and team “discovery journeys” at http://venturewell.org/blog.
The National Pipeline
NSF has dramatically expanded the emerging community of scientists and engineers by partnering with VentureWell, a not-for-profit higher education network with almost 20 years of experience in fostering innovative experiential entrepreneurship programs at U.S. universities and colleges. VentureWell works closely with NSF and funding partners such as The Lemelson Foundation, USAID, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to create high-impact education and training.
I-Corps teams — the researchers whose innovations and energy drive the NIN ecosystem — learn to be market-focused entrepreneurs at trainings hosted by I-Corps Nodes; these are universities equipped by NSF to support regional needs for innovation education, infrastructure and research. Other universities host I-Corps Sites that expand this ecosystem by nurturing the formation of many more candidate I-Corps teams. In the past two years, NIN has grown from 3 to 33 universities.
At the April NIN meeting, hosted by VentureWell and NSF, each Node and Site revealed its work to date, what it had learned, and where it is going. From this, the group developed strategies for optimizing the I-Corps program and establishing shared research, assessment and evaluation tools for measuring impact.
Mentoring I-Corps Teams
A key outcome of the meeting is growing the I-Corps Mentor Network to help teams succeed. Randy Graves, director of the George Washington Entrepreneurship Round Table Mentors Group, described his experience as an I-Corps mentor:
“With the GWU Graphene team, my role was helping them focus on who primary customers are, and what is their primary market. They started focusing on reinforcing plastics with graphene for the automotive and aerospace market, a $40 billion market worldwide. We had to figure out the supply chain. We ended up contacting every functionalizing plastics company in the United States — 200 companies — and interviewed 70 of them over six weeks, 86 companies in total. It got us to who is really going to buy the product, and helped guide their development.”
Since the April NIN meeting, Nodes and Sites have shared practices for recruiting mentors, how to engage with researchers as potential teams, and how to prepare teams for the program. Norm Rapino, who directs mentoring at the Michigan Node, has led several of these discussions and authored an I-Corps Mentor Recruiting handbook now available to NIN members.
Aiming for Commercial Success
Nodes and Sites work together to help teams over the long haul. While I-Corps brings teams to a decision on commercial viability and a customer-based approach to creating a venture or product, teams that have graduated still need significant support to make it across the finish line to commercialization. NIN members — especially mentors — help I-Corps alumni win that long drive to commercial success by providing access to the right people, information and resources they need to avoid common pitfalls in scaling and to grow even in the face of unexpected churns in industry or in the lab.
The DC Accelerator is one of the first NIN efforts to help teams that have graduated I-Corps and are ready to begin commercialization. Developed by the DC I-Corps Node and directed by Dan Kunitz, it supports teams that successfully complete the initial program and are ready to transition from “testing the problem” to “testing the solution.”
National Innovation Network members also share data on I-Corps outcomes so they can strengthen the program. Important intermediate outcomes include the number of start-ups created, licenses made to third-party companies, funding secured to pursue commercialization, and new collaborations initiated between academia and industry.
Working with NSF, network members have also established shared metrics of long-term impacts, such as private funding raised by teams, licensing and sales revenue generated, and jobs created. While data are now being gathered on these measures, we expect this retrospective confirmation of the economic impact won't emerge for several years.
In the meantime, initial data from the 100-plus teams that graduated I-Corps in 2011-2012 already indicate that scores of people are starting companies and raising money based on their I-Corps teams, integrating an entrepreneurial approach into more of their research in general, and implementing new courses and seminars to teach entrepreneurship. (One of NSF’s goals is to equip U.S. science and technology faculty and students to be creative, technologically-savvy leaders.)
New Nodes in California, Texas
In August, the NSF added two new Nodes to the National Innovation Network. A Southern California Node is based at USC and includes UCLA and Caltech. Yannis C. Yortsos, Dean of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, said, “We are very pleased to receive this transformative grant from the NSF, which recognizes the immense potential of the Los Angeles region to become a vibrant technology innovation ecosystem. With the largest number of talented engineers graduating from Southern California institutions than from any other geographic region in the nation, the conditions are just ripe for this creative transformation for the benefit of the region and the nation overall.”
A new Texas Node is based at UT Austin and includes Rice University and Texas A&M University. Juan Sanchez, research vice president at UT Austin, said, “Having an I-Corps Node established in Texas represents a unique opportunity for researchers and institutions across the state and region to leverage existing research efforts into new business initiatives that will benefit society at large.”
Richard Lester, executive director at the Texas A&M Center for New Ventures and Entrepreneurship, added, “NSF looks for broader impacts, so involving schools in our system and region is a way to broaden and advance the I-Corps initiative. One of our far-reaching goals is to teach this process to other universities in the region.”
Working together, the ingenious thinkers of the National Innovation Network are addressing America’s needs for innovation education, infrastructure, research, and economic impact.
Bruce Hoppe, senior program officer, Network Development, at VentureWell, Hadley, MA; firstname.lastname@example.org