Government-funded research has been behind a slew of life-changing technologies (hello, Internet!), but, as with a lot of R&D spending, the dollars may not always generate optimal outcomes and worse, some amazing potential technological breakthroughs never see the light of day. Encouragingly, the federal government is injecting an entrepreneurial, yet disciplined approach to get the most bang for our taxpayer buck when it comes to cutting edge research. The efforts feel a bit like uncovering a garage-sale find stashed in grandma's basement that turns out to be a Picasso, as many technological and potentially market-changing treasures sit within the walls of our finest research universities -- and this new approach just might be the answer to bring these technological treasures into the world.
I have just completed a tour of duty as a venture capital faculty member at the National Science Foundation's I-Corps (short for NSF's Innovation Corps - a program designed to fast-track research from the lab to the real world), delivered in partnership with the University of Michigan. I-Corps is like the scientific version of PBS' Antiques Roadshow -- NSF-funded technological gems that have largely been tucked away in the labs of America's research institutions are being dusted off, given a heavy dose of commercial polish and have been unearthed to unlock the potential to create a lot of value for the technologists, their universities and society in general.
I-Corps revolves around a simple but radical notion: BEFORE you write your business plan and worse, before you raise any financing, you must get out of the lab to test your assumptions with the potential customers for whom you have a solution. The I-Corps teams are expected to talk to at least 100 potential customers, partners, suppliers and competitors in the six weeks between their initial week in class and the end of the program. Most of the teams are comprised of long-time research faculty who are intimately familiar with the scientific method, so we have them to apply that tried-and-true model of inquiry to their business hypotheses. Are we solving a compelling problem? Can a scalable and repeatable business model be built solving this problem? Is the market big enough? How do we reach our customers?
This disciplined "customer discovery" takes notions about the new technology out of the lab, often for the first time, to confront the harsh commercial world realities and usually are met with quite unexpected results.
One U-M I-Corps team initially targeted its haptic (tactile feedback technology) belt at video gamers, surmising that they'd love the reactive feeling of being "in the game." While the video gamers found the belt was interesting, there wasn't price support for the product in that market segment. So they talked to military officials about using the belts as an inaudible communication device. Military officials didn't bite on that use, but did see potential in the belt as a tool for its physical rehabilitation programs for wounded veterans. Boom! That insight led the team to the medical field, which narrowed into the belt's attractiveness as a stroke recovery device, which opened a huge and profitable market the team had never considered.
Although this team and the 26 others at U-M are just starting their journey toward commercialization, we already have early evidence that the program and its approach can turn raw technologies into promising companies. Two Stanford I-Corps alumni used the program as a springboard for their company, Blue River Technology, which offers a robotic alternative to chemical-intensive agriculture. Blue River's equipment uses breakthrough computer vision techniques for identifying weeds and selectively killing unwanted plants. Blue River started out the I-Corps program looking to use the robot to diffuse bombs, IEDs or even analyze oil pipelines, but through the Customer Discovery process they have found their best home in the agriculture market. The company recently proved their point and just raised $3.1 million from a leading cleantech investor, Khosla Ventures and Steve Blank (the entrepreneurial visionary behind I-Corps) -- an impressive result for a team just 12 months out of the I-Corps.
Of course, not every I-Corps team is a "Picasso" who will find investors, but we all stand to win big when the eventual successful technologists and emergent companies achieve commercial success. Not only are needed jobs created and tax coffers filled by successful companies, but these technology-driven businesses typically improve public health, make things cheaper for us or allow us to do things we haven't been able to do before.
Technology-liberation efforts like the I-Corps play an important role in feeding the innovation engine that made America the world's greatest economic power. It's a position we can only hope to maintain through accelerated technology-driven innovation, as we compete with larger populaces with typically low-cost-driven economic strategies. So, c'mon American technologists! Bring your technologies out of the lab through the I-Corps approach and let's see what hidden gems you might have...