NSF I-Corps National Network

Two weeks ago, I was invited to Washington DC for the National Science Foundation‘s one-year celebration of the I-Corps program. NSF is one of the largest funding sources for science and engineering research in the world, investing over $7 billion last year. I-Corps (or “Innovation Corps”) is an incredibly ambitious effort to increase the impact of that research by preparing scientists and engineers to extend their focus beyond the laboratory. The goal is not to make every researcher an entrepreneur, but to make every researcher familiar with the entrepreneurial process and to better identify valuable product opportunities that can emerge from academic research.

GT President Bud Peterson at the NSF I-Corps event, July 2012

Georgia Tech has been involved in I-Corps since the very beginning. Through its SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) grant process, NSF has been closely connected to VentureLab, and has seen several of those companies graduate into ATDC. We were involved in the discussions before, during, and after the launch of I-Corps a year ago.

Based on the success of business accelerators such as Y-Combinator (and our own Flashpoint), I-Corps is organized into “cohorts”, or classes. Each cohort contains 20-30 teams composed of academic researchers, student entrepreneurs (undergraduates, graduate students and post-docs) and business mentors participating in a seven-week curriculum that combines in-person short courses, extensive online coaching, and hands-on outreach to potential customers. The curriculum is based on leading-edge understanding of startups represented by the Stanford “Lean Launchpad” course, originally presented by NSF program officers and nationally-renowned venture capitalists and entrepreneurs.

NSF selected a Georgia Tech team for the first cohort, which convened at Stanford University in autumn 2011. We also placed a team into the second cohort at Stanford this spring.

Then things got really exciting.

NSF wants to scale I-Corps beyond a single campus. For the summer 2012 cohort, they asked Georgia Tech and the University of Michigan to step up and teach the same Lean Launchpad curriculum that the first and second cohorts received at Stanford, and to demonstrate that the curriculum scales beyond Silicon Valley VCs and entrepreneurs. We said yes! We organized a teaching team led by Keith McGreggor and Paul Freet of EI2, as well as John Bacon (a dedicated GT alum) from IP2Biz here in Technology Square. We kicked off the third cohort with 27 teams (including four from Georgia Tech) on July 9th, and we’ll finish late this month.

I-Corps Summer 2012 cohort at Georgia Tech
I-Corps Summer 2012 cohort at Georgia Tech

That’s a great start, but now NSF is asking us to do even more. We’ve proven that the I-Corps curriculum can scale beyond a single campus. Now, they want us to help prove that it can scale nationally. Last month, NSF announced the I-Corps National Network… with Stanford, University of Michigan, and Georgia Tech as the three initial nodes.

I’m the primary investigator on a new three-year, $1.5 million grant, under which Georgia Tech will help the NSF understand the evolution of the I-Corps teams, build support for academic innovation ecosystems, and set up new collaborations around the country to support commercialization opportunities. We’ll build on what we’ve learned from ATDC, VentureLab, SBIR Georgia, Flashpoint, and GT:IPS… and take it nationwide. It’s a great opportunity for Georgia Tech, and a great endorsement of our commercialization ecosystem.

Merrick Furst, Ravi Bellamkonda, and Ray Vito are all co-investigators on the NSF grant, so we’ll be tightly coupled with the rest of campus… but EI2 is clearly the lead. The funds will allow us to hire additional catalysts in Nina Sawczuk‘s Startup Services division, and those jobs are currently posted on the OHR website. Please make sure to tell people about them, because we’re looking for the best of the best!

I’m proud of everyone involved in getting us to this point, and am looking forward to exceeding the NSF’s expectations over the next three years.