Lessons from the I-Corps

September 29, 2016

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded five new grants to teach entrepreneurship and to support research and innovation at regional hubs across the United States under its Innovation Corps (I-Corpsâ„¢) program.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded five new grants to teach entrepreneurship and to support research and innovation at regional hubs across the United States under its Innovation Corps (I-Corps™) program.

The innovation hubs, known as I-Corps nodes, provide the research infrastructure and training to help researchers transition fundamental science and engineering discoveries to the marketplace. They also support a number of I-Corps sites across the country and deliver a seven-week I-Corps curriculum to the I-Corps teams.

As a surgeon bio-entrepreneurship educator at the University of Colorado, my colleagues and I have been participating in the program as a node. We use the methodology to teach faculty and students to:

  • Gain customer insights to translate innovations into viable commercial products.
  • Identify best product-to-market fit.
  • Be more successful in getting small-business and entrepreneur startup funding.

I have been using the model for several years in my courses and workshops and mentoring student and faculty entrepreneurs.

The process is in three stages. In the first stage, project team members are given didactic instruction in the lean startup methodology and customer discovery and development process. In the second phase, teams interview stakeholders in an attempt to validate underlying business canvas hypotheses. In the final phase, they report their findings and modifications they have made based on an analysis of the results.

It is still early in our experience to report results, but here are some preliminary observations:

1. Many academic physicians are hungry for biomedical entrepreneurship education and training.

2. Most are mission driven, not profit driven

3. They see participation in the iCorps program, primarily, as a way to solve public health or patient problems and, possibly, find money and other resources to support their research or generate publications

4. While they do not get much credit, if any, for the scholarship of entrepreneurship during the promotion and tenure process, they see the value and things are starting to change due to bottom up pressure.

5. Sometimes, particularly in drug discovery and development, the process is not a perfect fit

6. Students are confused about which stakeholders to approach,what to ask them, and how to make sense of the responses

7. They are perplexed by profit driven canvas v mission driven canvas.

8. They have a hard time working in virtual teams

9. As expected, they are challenged by tasks that are foreign or push them out of their comfort zone

10. They quickly grasp that they don't know what they don't know, particularly when it comes to the intricacies of university based technology transfer, team building, how to get an idea to patients and intellectual property and regulatory hurdles.

The iCorps methodology has proven to be useful for medical professionals, scientists and engineers who are interested in getting their ideas to patients and securing funding to do it. Already we have "pivoted" based on our student customer feedback and will continue to do so. We practice what we teach.