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NSF Innovation Corps -- What America Does Best

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We ran the first National Science Foundation Innovation Corps class October to December 2011.

63 scientists and engineers in 21 teams made ~2,000 customer calls in 10 weeks, turning laboratory ideas into formidable startups. 19 of the 21 teams are moving forward in commercializing their technology.

Watching the final presentations it was clear that the results were way past our initial expectations (comments from mentors as well as pre- and post-class survey data suggested that most of the teams learned more in two months than others had in two years.) So much so that the NSF decided to scale the Innovation Corps program.

In 2012 the NSF will put 150 teams of the best scientists in the U.S. through the Lean LaunchPad class. And to help teach these many teams, the NSF will recruit other universities that have engineering entrepreneurship programs to become part of the Innovation Corps network.

Congressman Lipinski Gets It
In-between the 2011 pilot class and the first NSF class of 2012, I got a call from Congressman Dan Lipinski. He sits on the House committee that oversees the NSF - the Science, Space and Technology committee (a place where his engineering degree and PhD comes in handy.) He had read my blog posts about the NSF Innovation Corps and was interested in how the first class went. He wanted to fly out to Stanford and sit in the Lean LaunchPad class about to start in the engineering school.

While I've had visitors in my classes before, having a congressman was a first. He showed up with no press in tow, no entourage, just a genuine search for understanding of whether this program was a waste of taxpayer money or good for the country.

He asked tough questions about why the government not private capital should be doing this. I explained that the goal of the Innovation Corps was to bridge what the NSF calls the "ditch of death" -- the gap between when NSF research funding runs out and when a team is credible enough (with enough customer and market knowledge) to raise private capital or license/partner with existing companies. The goal was not to replace private capital but to help attract it. The amount of money spent on the Innovation Corps would be about 1/4 of one percent of the $7.373 billion NSF budget, but it would leverage the tens of billions basic research dollars already invested. It's payoff would be disproportionately large for the country. It's one of the best investments this country can make for keeping the U.S. competitive and creating jobs.

After class the Congressman joined the teaching team at our favorite pizza place for our weekly post-class debrief.

If you like science, technology or entrepreneurship, this guy is the real deal. He gets it.
"Innovation, jobs and entrepreneurship" have become popular buzzwords in an election year. But it was pretty amazing to see a congressman jump on a plane to actually find out if he can help the country do so. He issued this press release asking Congress to fully fund the Innovation Corps when he came back to Washington.

The National Science Foundation Innovation Corps combines the best of what the U.S. government, American researchers in academia and risk capital can do together. If we're correct, we can compress the time for commercializing scientific breakthroughs and reduce the early stage risks of these new ventures. This means more jobs, new industries and a permanent edge for innovation in the United States.

The 3-person teams consisted of Principal Investigators (PI's), mostly tenured professors (average age of 45,) whose NSF research the project was based on. The PI's in turn selected one of their graduate students (average age of 30,) as the entrepreneurial lead. The PI and Entrepreneurial Lead were supported by a mentor (average age of 50,) with industry/startup experience.

This was most definitely not the hoodie and flip-flop crowd.

Part one of the posts on the NSF Innovation Corps is here, part two here. Syllabus for the class is here. Textbook is here.

Here are some of the final Lessons Learned presentations and team videos:

Akara Solutions: Flexible, Low Cost Cooling Technology for LED Lighting
Principal Investigator: Satish Kandlikar Rochester Institute of Technology

Arka Solutions Final Video

If you can't see the video above, click here.

To see the presentation, click here.

Semiconductor-Based Hydrogen and Hydrocarbon Sensors
Principal Investigator: Lisa Porter Carnegie-Mellon University

SensSevere iCorps Movie

If you can't see the video above, click here.

The presentation is here.

Pilot Production Of Large Area Uniform Single-Crystal Graphene Films
Principal Investigator: Alan Johnson University of Pennsylvania

Graphene I-Corps Movie

If you can't see the video above, click here.

See the presentation here.

Radiotracer Synthesis Commercialization
Principal Investigator: Stephen DiMagno University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Ground Flour Pharma iCorp

If you can't see the video above click here.

To see the presentation, click here.

Commercialization of an Engineered Pyrolysis Blanket for the Conversion of Forestry Residues to Soil Amendments and Energy Products
Principal Investigator: Daniel Schwartz University of Washington

Carbon Cultures Final NSF I-Corps Video

If you can't see the video above, click here

See the presentation here.

Photocatalysts for water remediation
Principal Investigator: Pelagia Gouma SUNY at Stony Brook

photocatalyst NSF I-Corps Video

If you can't see the video above, click here.

To see the presentation, click here.

The other teams were equally interesting. Here are links to their Lessons Learned presentations.

IDecideFast - A web-based application for effective decision making for the layperson
Principal Investigator: Ali Abbas University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Silicon Terahertz Electronics
Principal Investigator: Michael Shur Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Standoff detection of explosives using novel signal-amplifying nanocomposite and hand-held UV light
Principal Investigator: Yu Lei University of Connecticut

MEMS-based drug infusion pumps
Principal Investigator: Ellis Meng University of Southern California

TexCone - Laser-Generated Surface Textures for Anti-Icing and Sun-Light-Trapping Applications
Principal Investigator: Mool Gupta University of Virginia

Concentric Technology
Principal Investigator: Walter Besio University of Rhode Island

Hand-Held Tonometer for Transpalpebral Intraocular Pressure Measurement
Principal Investigator: Eniko Enikov University of Arizona

Artificial Membrane-based Ion Channel Screening
Principal Investigator: Jacob Schmidt University of California-Los Angeles

Privacy-Preserving Location Based Services
Principal Investigator: Nan Zhang George Washington University

MySkinTone: A breakthrough technology and product for skin melanin evaluation
Principal Investigator: Michael Silevitch Northeastern University

Mobidemics: Using Mobile Gaming for Healthcare
Principal Investigator: Nilanjan Banerjee University of Arkansas

Principal Investigator: Elizabeth Mynatt (; Georgia Tech Research Corporation

Sweet Sensors - Portable sensors using widely available personal glucose monitor
Principal Investigator: Yi Lu University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

SwiftVax - A Green Manufacturing Platform for Faster, Cheaper, and Scalable Vaccine Manufacturing
Principal Investigator: Karen McDonald University of California-Davis

Lessons Learned
  • Yes, entrepreneurship can be taught
  • No, there's no age limit
  • We now know how to reduce customer and market risk for new ventures
  • The combination of government, researchers in academia and risk capital make a powerful accelerator for technology commercialization
  • There's at least one congressman who understands it

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