I-Corp, push your idea from research to reality

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is well known for its funding of high impact scientific discoveries. Making up over a quarter of all federal funding for science and technology research, NSF knows how to invest in the future of the United States research infrastructure. Research and discovery funded by the NSF also have the potential to make a large impact on our communities and on the world. Funding research in areas such as quantum mechanics, artificial intelligence, and human dynamics, the NSF plays a key role in supporting the next generation of innovation.

In the fall of 2011, the NSF took on a new program to further support U.S. innovation and assist in translating funded research projects into commercial products. Working with the widely recognized silicon valley entrepreneur, Steve Blank, the NSF developed a curriculum program to teach scientists how to take their ideas and move them out of the lab and into the hands of customers. Modifying Steve Blank’s Lean LaunchPad methodology into an accelerated, hands on program, the NSF has created a new way for scientists and think about their research and technology. This program, known as the NSF Innovation Corps (NSF I-Corps), has had a dramatic impact on fostering innovation and expanding the economic impact of federally funded research.

Background of the West Virginia Program

Since the program launched in 2011, the NSF I-Corps program has trained 1,528 teams, lead to the creation of 784 Startup companies, and collectively, teams who have successfully completed the training have raised $424 million in follow on funding. The success of this program clearly demonstrates the potential economic impact academic research projects can have when given the proper tools to evolve from a research based discovery into a useable product.

The structure of the program consists of two tiers. The first level of the program takes place through regional hubs. These hubs, which are geographically distributed across the country, help facilitate a shortened version of the I-Corps course to various communities and states. The regional courses vary in length but typically run about 3-4 weeks long. During this time, participants work in their teams to learn about value propositions, identify appropriate customer segments, and conduct customer discovery through interviews. These learnings help teams narrow in on how their product can solve real world problems and how the value of their idea can be conveyed to customers.

Iconic Air co-founders and WVU graduates Kyle Gillis and James Carnes participated in both regional and National I-Corps programs. Since completing the I-Corps program they have gone on to successfully secure federal and private capital and are building a growing startup company.

Once a team has successfully completed the regional course, eligible teams are able to apply to the national I-Corps program. This course format is more rigorous and requires a three member team: an entrepreneurial lead, a technical lead, and an industry mentor. These teams follow the same Lean LaunchPad methodology but do so in an expended and more in depth format that flows over two months. During the course, teams conduct at least 100 customer interviews and use information gathered from those interviews to fine tune their product and value proposition. Given the rigor and time commitment of the national program, teams are awarded $50,000 to cover time and costs associated with the course.

West Virginia became an I-Corp site approximately 4 years ago and in that time frame nearly 70 teams have graduated the regional course, 9 have progressed onto the national I-Corp program, 6 nationally recognized I-Corp faculty mentors have been trained, and over $3 million in follow on funding has been raised by WV teams. The I-Corps program is truly an impactful program that allows innovators and entrepreneurs from all across the country to partake in opportunities that will have a long tailed benefit to economic development and societal gain.

About the Author

Dr. Erienne Olesh is the Director of Startup WV, an economic impact unit within WVU working to improve and support entrepreneurship. Dr. Olesh facilitates the regional NSF I-Corps program for the state of West Virginia and is the state lead on the National Institutes of Health NIGMs XLerate Health STTR grant. She has been an active advisory member for the WV Clinical Translational Science Institute since 2018 and sits on the board of Bio WV. She has been an active member in the entrepreneurial ecosystem at WVU since 2014. Dr. Olesh holds a PhD in neuroscience and an MBA from West Virginia University. To learn more about the NSF I-Corps program please visit the website.  If you are interested in participating in a regional program or would like to learn more, contact Erienne Olesh at erienne.olesh@mail.wvu.edu.