National Science Foundation Unveils a Startup School Modeled on Steve Blank’s Lean LaunchPad

7/28/11Follow @wroush

Incubator madness has reached all the way to Washington, D.C. The National Science Foundation announced today that with the help of private-sector partners, it plans to put at least $5 million per year into a new program, the Innovation Corps or I-Corps, aimed at helping university scientists and engineers build startups around their technologies. The centerpiece of the program: a $50,000 cash award for 25 teams each quarter, plus a nine-week crash course in tech entrepreneurship modeled on the “Lean LaunchPad” course taught at Stanford University this spring by author and retired serial entrepreneur Steve Blank.

“Essentially, this is Y Combinator with a curriculum tailored for the best scientists and researchers this country has to offer,” Blank told me this morning, referring to the Mountain View, CA-based program that is arguably the country’s largest and most prestigious venture incubator. “The goal is, at the end, to have a Demo Day and see if these guys have learned anything, and if they are fundable.”

But on a higher level, the hope is to find way to help NSF-backed researchers with potentially commercial concepts get those ideas out into the marketplace, where they could become the engines for future job growth. “I-Corps will help strengthen a national innovation ecosystem that firmly unites industry with scientific discoveries for the benefit of society,” NSF director Subra Suresh said in a statement announcing the program today.

“I think lots of people—not just the current administration, not just one side of the aisle or the other—have concluded that in the 21st century, job creation is not going to come from existing industries,” Blank says. “We are going to have to create new industries, and the job creation is going to come from innovation and entrepreneurship.”

According to NSF’s announcement today, I-Corps is a public-private partnership with the NSF itself, the Deshpande Foundation, and the Kauffman Foundation as founding members. The program is accepting proposals starting today, and will name its first batch of 25 awardees on September 30. Teams must consist of at least one principal investigator—usually a university faculty member—to act as technical lead and project manager, and at least one postdoctoral researcher or graduate student to act as the “entrepreneurial lead.”

But the I-Corps program isn’t open to just anyone—the PI on each team must already have received at least one NSF grant in the last five years. And unlike most NSF grants, the I-Corps awards come with a big string attached: awardees are required to take part in Blank’s Lean LaunchPad curriculum, which begins with a three-day workshop at Stanford in October, continues with five weeks of Web-based lectures, and concludes with pitch presentations to investors in December.

Blank described the first iteration of the Lean LaunchPad class at Stanford this spring in a series of posts published on his personal blog and reposted on Xconomy. The goal of the course, which was sponsored by the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, was to help students come up with a workable business model for a real-world technology or idea, and bring it as close to possible to fruition by identifying potential customers and rapidly adapting the technology to fit those customers’ needs. Ultimately, nine teams finished the course, with technologies running the gamut from a social shopping platform to a robotic weeding system for agriculture.

Blank says that unbeknownst to him, program managers at the NSF were reading those updates, and decided that a lot of NSF-backed researchers could benefit from the same type of training. The common wisdom about bridging the gap between the best research in U.S. academic laboratories and the commercial world, Blank says, is “to read a book from Harvard on how to write business plans, or come up with a cash flow projection or a five-year plan.” What the course emphasized, instead, was a methodology for finding customers, Blank says.

“They approached me and Stanford and said ‘Would you do this for us?’” Blank says. He readily agreed. “I consider it part of my national service. More importantly, True Ventures and Mohr Davidow Ventures are going to teach this with me, and the Kauffman Foundation and others have jumped in to help here.” Blank’s co-instructors will include Tom Byers and Tina Seelig of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, Jon Feiber of Mohr Davidow Ventures, and John Burke of True Ventures.

Blank acknowledges that the I-Corps curriculum is still very experimental, but says his teaching team plans to modify the program continuously as new batches of I-Corps entrepreneurs arrive in 2012. “Our hypothesis is that we have found a teaching methodology to train PIs in the scientific method of starting a company,” Blank says. “We know we can’t predict success, but I think that we can now say unequivocally that we know enough about entrepreneurship education to teach people to avoid the infant-mortality mistakes—we can say ‘Don’t do these 25 stupid things.’ Does that guarantee success? Absolutely not. But it’s better than a random walk.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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