NSF ‘Audacious Experiment’ Still Audacious But An Experiment No Longer

This is a sample from the CIMS July/August 2014 IMR which presents an article written by Mike Wolff. The article highlights the history of NSF and its future.


The U.S. government has been running “one of the most audacious experiments in entrepreneurship since World War II,” serial entrepreneur and professor Steve Blank blogged two years ago. Today, Blank tells CIMS IMR, “that experiment has been proven and is ready to scale.”

“That experiment,” as we reported in the Summer 2012 IMR, is the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps, or I-Corps™. It was adapted from the Lean Launchpad class Blank was running at Stanford University to train NSF scientists in starting companies based on NSF-funded research.

Initially, in Fall 2011, there were 21 3-person teams, selected by NSF and led by a university professor/research scientist (the Principal Investigator) with a graduate student from the PI’s lab (the entrepreneurial lead committed to realizing the commercial potential of the particular technology) and a mentor from the local area with entrepreneurial expertise (“not 22-year-olds who wanted to build a social shopping web site,” Blank observed).

Business Models, Not Plans

The 63 participants were taught a Lean Launch curriculum that replaced business plans and academic exercises with a business model/customer development/agile development methodology that forces students into the field so they can test their business hypotheses on prospective customers and ultimately discover their own business models. As Blank likes to say, “no business plan survives first contact with customers.”

By Dec. 2011, the 21 teams had made 2,000 customer calls in eight weeks, and 19 were in the process of commercializing their own technologies, Blank reported. “The gamble was that we could train professors doing hard-core science, who had never been near a startup or Silicon Valley, to get out of the building and talk to customers and pivot as easily as someone at a web startup” he said. “The scientists, the NSF and the teaching team were all going to go where no one had before.”

296 Teams, 100 Universities

Today, it looks like Blank’s gamble has paid off. At the time of this writing, 296 teams from approximately 100 universities had completed the Lean Launch Pad curriculum through I-Corps. Nearly half the teams have actually started companies, according to Rathindra (Babu) DasGupta, NSF’s I-Corps program director (see “Three Emerging I-Corps Successes,” below).

“The PIs are confident, creative experts in their respective academic fields, but I-Corps brings them into an entirely new arena where they encounter unfamiliar risks to ‘move’ their promising technologies to the market place,” DasGupta told CIMS IMR. “The fear to fail, the fear to make cold calls with customers, the fear to accept rejections from customers are among several reasons for their reluctance to become entrepreneurs.

“However, the I-Corps curriculum, which is a departure from traditional entrepreneurial curricula, has changed the outlook of many PIs. As one PI remarked: ‘All in all, I-Corps has been one of the most rewarding experiences in my over 35 years in academia. I-Corps is magic, transformative and most effective, in a deceivingly simple way, in invigorating interest in commercialization, and makes believers out of academic doubters. It is a program that I strongly recommend for any scientific team and am hopeful that our university will send other teams in the near future’.”

Steve Blank received evidence of I-Corps “magic” in a phone call during the summer of 2013. His NSF caller informed him that at the same time the I-Corps teams were learning to commercialize their science, other scientists were pursuing their startups without taking the class. Blank was stunned to hear that when both groups applied for peer-reviewed funding through the Federal government’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, only 18% of the teams that skipped the Lean Launch class received Phase 1 funding while 60% of those that took the class did get funded.

“While funding does not equal a successful company,” he observed, “it does mean these teams knew something about building a business the other teams did not.”

– To read the full article check out the CIMS newsletter at http://cims.ncsu.edu/resources/newsletters/


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