The NSF I-Corps Is Turning Scientists Into Savvy Entrepreneurs

From faster vaccines to automated traffic reporting, scientists are taking ideas developed in the lab and applying lessons from the startup world about how to turn innovation into business.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) funds approximately 18,000 scientists and researchers with nearly $7 billion each year, but much of the research never makes it out of the lab. A big part of the problem is that scientists don't always make the best businesspeople and, as a result, many brilliant ideas that could be spun off into commercial businesses stay buried in prototypes and research papers. That's where the new NSF I-Corps, a public-private bootcamp for promising research projects, comes in.

The I-Corps model is based on Stanford professor Steve Blank's Lean LaunchPad class, which trains scientists to become entrepreneurs. In eight weeks in Blank's class, students build their products and get orders. Blank says that he teaches students how to figure out their business models, decide on a customer base, and figure out branding--all by going outside the classroom to find out what people want. "I had gotten starting a company down to the scientific method," says Blank. "I was making them take their labs outside the building."

Last year, Blank blogged about every session of his class, and the NSF took notice. So the organization created the I-Corps, a quarterly program that offers $50,000 to awardees along with an accelerated version of the Lean LaunchPad class. Earlier this month, a group of 21 research teams from around the country descended on Stanford's campus for the first I-Corps meeting. Unlike the Lean LaunchPad, however, most of the teaching for the inaugural I-Corps class will be done remotely. "These guys have other careers," says Blank.

The team projects are varied, to say the least. One team from UC Davis has developed a method to quickly grow and extract vaccines from tobacco plant leaves. Using the leaves, the team can grow a full-fledged vaccine in just six weeks, at a cheaper cost that traditional production methods, which usually involves extracting vaccines from fluid in chicken eggs.

The UC Davis team hopes that I-Corps can steer its commercialization efforts in the right direction. "Our hypothesis is that we can be a producer of vaccines in a rapid fashion. It's relevant to the H1N1 crisis or when you're dealing with other large outbreaks where you need to produce millions of vaccines in a short amount of time," says team member Lucas Arzola. "But we're willing to challenge this hypothesis and look at other markets and other business models."

Another team from the University of North Texas has developed something called the Mobile Life Guard--a program that uses on-board vehicle computers and users' smartphones to analyze driving patterns and send alerts about potentially unsafe conditions (i.e. bad weather, an accident up ahead). "There is a large feature set, and we don't know what's useful to customers. We need some customer feedback," says team member Ram Dantu.

If Blank's experience with Lean LaunchPad students is any indication, the I-Corps members will soon blossom into savvy entrepreneurs. Blank tells the story of one Lean LaunchPad team, Autonomow, that wanted to build a robotic lawnmower. After talking to potential customers, the team realized that it wasn't the right market for them, and they instead built a robotic farm weeding machine. "There's no way in a [regular] class that they would have figured that out," says Blank.

[Image: Flickr user mars_discovery_district]

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

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