National Science Foundation Innovation Corps
I just concluded participation in the NSF’s I-Corps program as part of Bay Area Cohort Number 2 which started in mid July and ended on August 29th. It was an exciting non stop 7 weeks with lots of turns and twists. While I’m exhausted I thoroughly enjoyed it and learned a great deal which, after all, was the goal. There were some really talented people at the Cohort and I benefited just from interacting with them. It helped reignite some of my dormant social skills which I now intend to put to good use in developing our technology further. It will more likely be a significant variation of what we originally took to I-Corps but that’s really the point of the program (in my opinion). What you come out with can be totally different in a surprising way.
The history and intent of the program are outlined in the above link so I won’t reproduce that information except to say that if you are a scientist, have had some recent NSF funding, and currently possess some technology that you think might be marketable then you can apply for $50,000 to figure out the commercial potential of your work. Keep in mind that the purpose of I-Corps is to teach approaches and techniques that will enable you to assess the commercial viability of your own product. No one “sits down” with you, analyzes your technology, and suggests a path or arranges meetings with potential funding sources. There are in fact paid consultants who can provide this service but this is not what I-corps is about. The idea is to provide a set of skills that will enable you to do these things for yourself for your existing technology and any you subsequently develop.
The team that goes to an I-Corps Cohort is typically three people:
- The (PI) “Primary Investigator” who is typically the originator of the technology or product being considered for commercialization
- The (EL) Entrepreneurial Lead who is usually a student or a Postdoc who might also be a co-developer of the technology. This person could also be another investigator or professor. There can also be a second or “Co-EL” though most teams seem to show up with one.
- The (IM) “Industry Mentor” who is someone with industry experience preferably within the domain(s) to which you believe your product or technology belongs.
The EL does ALL of the presenting throughout the 7 Weeks. Part of the reason for the emphasis on these presentations is to condition you for the possibility of one day interacting with Venture Capitalists, local Research Alliances, Angel Investors and anyone else who might be in a position to give you money for your technology. Better to hone your presentation chops at I-Corps than in front of a group of unsympathetic strangers. Don’t worry – everyone in your cohort is in the same boat and everyone gets a similar level of scrutiny so there is no need to take comments personally. During the opening and closing workshops – when it’s your time to present your team goes to the podium and the EL presents according to that day’s assignment. In the interim weeks the teams present via WebEx.
Funding your I-Corps Experience
The grant provides $50,000 to cover the costs of the workshop which are usually $1,500 per person with the rest of the money being available for conference travel and upgrades to Dropbox to accommodate the course materials and the content you will generate over the 7 weeks. There are restrictions on the types of travel such as the NSF does not want you going to purely academic conferences. Instead you need to be going to trade shows and “applied” conferences since your I-Corps experience relates to products and applied tech as opposed to say emerging theory discussions. They will go over these types of guidelines and regulations in the Opening Workshop.
Your team will be “married” for the duration of the seven weeks of the program. The I-Corps Teaching Team (usually comprised of 6 people) wants all team members to be present at ALL meetings which includes the opening onsite 3.5 day workshop, the weekly remote WebEx presentations, and the onsite 2 day closing workshop. Just accept the fact that you will be super busy during the onsite workshops and you won’t have any problems. Most teams don’t get very much sleep during the opening 3 days. If there is an emergency then by all means tell the Teaching Team or the TA and they will work with you. But they won’t be sympathetic to the idea that, for example, one of the team members has a business meeting or needs to be on a conference call during any of these sessions.
Here is how the calendar looked for my Cohort. Note that the Sunday arrival in San Francisco (on July the 16th) was necessary to attend the mandatory opening reception before the course began on Monday.
The reception on the 16th involved an introductory exercise to get the teams talking to each other and to the group as a whole. The instructors also used this time to introduce themselves and to prepare us for the upcoming busy schedule. After completing the Monday through Wednesday workshop we returned home and for each of the next 6 weeks participated in a 1.5 hours WebEx presentation. We returned to San Francisco for the closing workshop on the 28th and 29th of August to offer our final conclusions.
Everything is a Hypothesis
You will learn that many, if not all, of the ideas you have about your technology and the value thereof are simply hypotheses that have to be (dis)proven based on questions you present to potential customers you interview over the course of seven weeks. It is interesting to note that even the domain(s) from which you imagine your potential customers to come are also hypotheses which can change rapidly over time – sometimes within the space of a week. Don’t worry since, as a student of I-Corps, you will learn to grow comfortable with the idea of rapid change and the need to refocus (or “pivot”) to different customer segments as you continue to refine the value propositions of your products. Just consider that any assumption you have about the appeal of your technology has to be vetted via interviews which is why arranging interactions with potential customers is such an important part of the process.
The so-called “Business Model Canvas” (BMC) is where you register key ideas/hypotheses about your product. This will change from week to week and sometimes multiple times within a week. It looks like the following – well yours will have more content. This is just the blank template.
The I-Corps experience is concerned primarily with the right side of the canvas but all areas are important since you will need to find the a good product-market fit and identify potential key partners who might be able to help you. My team spent most of our time iterating towards solid Customer Segments (the most right column) which in turn will influence the formation of compelling Value Propositions (the middle column). Of course then ideas about Channels and Revenue Streams are equally as important so there will be hypotheses about these areas also. Just get used to the idea that interviews with people will yield information that might require you to abandon strongly held ideas about your technology. But this is necessary if you are to arrive at an informed decision about moving forward with commercialization. The Business Model Canvas winds up being the primary tool to capture your (dis)proven hypotheses from week to week and as a way to communicate these changes to the I-Corps Teaching Team.
This Sounds Hard – Why Bother ?
Why bother with physical exercise ? It’s hard too. One way to think about the experience is that it approximates the chaos, uncertainty, fatigue, and general dynamic surrounding startup projects. The process forces you to get out of the lab and talk to people (potential customers and/or partners) who will help determine the appeal and usability of your technology. While there were times when I was not happy with how things were going I now feel much more confident about approaching potential funding sources. We also made some valuable partner contacts who are reaching out to us to have some next-phase discussions relating to our technology. It’s very refreshing to have people calling us instead of us chasing them ! I’m very sure we wouldn’t have been able to do that as easily without I-Corps. Or it would have taken much longer to transpire.
As you interview the 100 people (yes that many) over the 7 week period you will learn that your strongly held ideas about your technology will have to change to accommodate reality. This can be a tough realization but that, to me, is what it’s all about. You go in thinking, “I know EXACTLY who will buy my technology” only to find out via interviews that your anticipated customers are like, “Err – No thanks”. The cool thing is that you can rebound (or “pivot” in I-Corps speak) to a new, unexpected direction that could hold much greater promise. There are no guarantees that this will happen of course but the more interviews you do the more apparent it becomes as to who is interested in you (or not). So I think there is a lot to be gained by the experience and would recommend it.
Preparing for the Experience
As you apply for acceptance into I-corps please consider the location and time of year since it is expected that you will have 15 interviews lined up in advance. In-person interviews are strongly encouraged although Skype and Phone interviews are accepted but the program pushes the in-person contacts. (More on the interview process here). The time required for participation in I-Corps is significantly more than the 15 hours stated by the NSF and Syllabus especially so for the Entrepreneurial Lead. The 15 hour metric is a minimum at at least in my experience. In any case once you are accepted into the program you will need to select a Cohort. Pick a location that promises a significant number of in person interview possibilities relative to your technology.
Please see Part 2 for a detailed description of the I-Corps Interview Process