National Science Foundation program trains students to bring ideas from the lab to the market, bridging commercialization gap
With projects such as implantable drug infusions to control chronic pain and laser-treated hydrophobic surfaces to reduce ice buildup on aircraft wings, the Innovation Corps (I-Corps) is taking scientific innovation from the lab to the market.
The federally funded National Science Foundation (NSF) program made its debut on the Stanford campus in the fall. I-Corps is the first NSF program that assists scientists and engineers in creating start-ups by transitioning their ideas and inventions into a viable business.
“I-Corps takes the most promising research projects in American university laboratories and turns them into start-ups, translating them from research with business potential to the market,” said program director Errol Arkilic.
When the NSF launched I-Corps in July 2011, it selected lab projects from around the country that it identified as the best candidates for commercialization and tapped Stanford, as a world-renowned Silicon Valley innovation powerhouse with expertise in turning research into business success, to help lead the program.
The NSF approached Stanford management science and engineering professors Steve Blank and John Feiber to lead the I-Corps training program. Collectively, the professors have more than 70 years of venture capital experience. Blank and Feiber co-teach Engineering 245: Technology Entrepreneurship and Lean Startups, a class recognized by the NSF as one of the best examples of course instruction and methodology for start-up development in the nation.
“There has always been a gap between studies in a lab and commercialization,” Blank said. “Stanford is proficient at turning research into commercialization.”
According to Blank, bridging the gap between science and engineering is increasingly becoming a common framework for the commercialization of new technologies. The intermediary step between lab research and commercialization has fallen in the domain of the private sector, with minimal government interaction in the process of company development.
Engineering 245 is based on the Lean LaunchPad approach to start-ups advocated by Blank. Lean LaunchPad is a strategy of applying the scientific method to entrepreneurial business development.
This “lean method” involves plotting out a canvas for the business model, and then testing the hypotheses in a real-world setting. Similar to a scientific experiment, groups then review and assess the efficacy of the technique, refine the method and repeat the process until they find success.
“The only truth is market truth,” Arkilic said. “The course that Professor Blank has constructed is the vanguard of how to teach entrepreneurship and help companies reach commercial recognition.”
Engineering 245 was taught to the I-Corps participants online, but the class is also offered to the Stanford community in winter quarter. The course focuses on topics such as value propositions and core ideals, which Feiber and Blank emphasize form the fundamental groundwork for successful start-ups. After outlining practical expense models and combining demand, revenue, resource and expense considerations, teams can begin building profitable companies.
“The goal wasn’t to get funding, it was to change the trajectory of the teams’ development,” Blake said. “We want to get inventions to a state where they can commercialize, license or start a company.”
This fall, the first I-Corps program included 21 teams from across the country. Participants represented schools including the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Nebraska, UCLA, the University of Southern California and the University of Connecticut.
While some start-up incubators concentrate on specific industries, I-Corps business prototypes are from a wide range of sectors strategically assembled by NSF. These sectors include environmental efficiency solutions, economic data collection tools, medical gadgets and aerospace engineering.
Through the program, teams gain the support system to turn test models into tangible products and enterprises.
“The way to increase the success rate of a company is to put a network around a particular project,” Arkilic said. “Advisors, mentors and people with scar tissue keep companies from making stupid mistakes.”
The course concentrated not on a tangible success measurement, but rather sought to foster a new skill set in the participants.
“We want students to focus on the marketplace and on the customers, not on the science,” Feiber said. “Students have said to us that they now feel proficient at doing a set of things they didn’t appreciate before the course.”
Feiber is enthusiastic about the progress I-Corps has made thus far, given that 19 teams participating in the first I-Corps program have gone forward with company development.
“NSF was ecstatic,” Feiber said. “They think it is one of the best things that has ever happened to the scientific community.”