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Science-based startups to benefit from new National Science Foundation program

Brian O'Connell

The National Science Foundation has seen the U.S. business startup environment and isn’t thrilled with what it sees.

But rather than stew about it, the NSF is doing something about it.

On July 28, the NSF – a $6.8 billion government agency – rolled out a new initiative that promises to change the way public and private partnerships plant the seeds for startup growth in America. 

The new venture, called the NSF Innovation Corps (or I-Corps) is designed to link NSF-funded research – especially in the science and technology fields – with the U.S. business community. In a word, the new program will fund 100 science and engineering research projects annually. Each team accepted into the program will receive $50,000, the NSF says.

NSF’s Innovation Corps aims to take the most promising research projects in American university laboratories and turn them into startups.

Essentially, the I-Corps initiative seeks to build a bridge between two remote groups – successful business owners and managers, and up-and-coming entrepreneurs who offer loads of potential to the scientific and technology markets, and to the overall economy (no small task given the lousy economy we’re seeing in the summer of 2011).

"While the main goal of I-Corps is to build on NSF's investment in fundamental research, the program also seeks to offer academic researchers and students an opportunity to learn firsthand about technological innovation and entrepreneurship to fulfill the promise of their discoveries," says Errol Arkilic, NSF program director for I-Corps.

"The United States has a long history of investing in – and deploying – technological advances derived from a foundation of basic research," explains NSF Director Subra Suresh. “And the NSF mission connects advancing the nation's prosperity and welfare with our passionate pursuit of scientific knowledge. I-Corps will help strengthen a national innovation ecosystem that firmly unites industry with scientific discoveries for the benefit of society."

The NSF is working in collaboration with the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which promotes a healthy entrepreneurial market in the U.S., to bring the best of the best scientific innovations to the public marketplace.

It’s also working with Stanford University and a business startup class taught by entrepreneur Steve Blank. Each project winner will take Blank’s Lean Launchpad startup class – onsite at first, then online after a few months of study.

Blank says his part of the program is “designed to make teams go out and talk with customers, like they’re starting a company. We want them testing their hypotheses outside the comforts of their research labs and reporting back every week.”

“The program gives VCs a pipeline that they’ve never before had access to, because most engineers have no idea how to speak to customers, and many are in Podunk universities. Everyone is a winner here if this thing works,” he says.

So how will the Innovation Corps effort play out? Beyond the Stanford program, the NSF wants private companies to work with entrepreneurs who are granted startup awards from the NSF and from I-Corps. The idea is that successful business owners and executives can mentor business innovators, and help them bring their ideas to the public marketplace.

Above all, the I-Corps team of mentors and managers will vet project award winners and their ideas. Budding entrepreneurs can expect to be grilled about subjects they may or may not have given careful consideration.

Typical questions (among others) may include:

  • What resources will be required?
  • What are the competing technologies?
  • What value will this innovation add?
  • How sustainable is the technology and/or business?

 

Can I-Corps succeed? Why not? Connecting great ideas in their infancy and bringing them into the business world would be a huge key to cranking up the sluggish U.S. economy. At 100 new projects per year, after 10 years, the U.S. would ostensibly have 1,000 unique new business ideas that would benefit the economy.

Any path to entrepreneurship and job creation is well worth taking. The NSF could be on to something very big here.

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