Scientists Morph Into Entrepreneurs Through NSF I-Corps Program

12/19/11Follow @wroush

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multiple times, always with the goal of eliminating early, incorrect hypotheses and zeroing in on the markets most receptive to their ideas.

Because the I-Corps scientists are only human, they showed “a spectrum of receptivity” to the idea of interviewing customers and continuously tweaking their business plans, said Errol Arkilic, the NSF program officer overseeing the I-Corps project. “But the mechanism that they are using is actually very similar to the scientific method. It is a hypothesis-driven test, but instead of doing it on the lab bench, they are taking it and applying it to market uncertainty, market unknowns.”

By and large, the NSF officers monitoring the I-Corps program were “blown away” by the teams’ progress, Arkilic said. “We think the hypothesis we had that Steve’s method would translate well [to university research] is being proven,” he said.

The NSF partnered on the I-Corps project with the Kauffman Foundation and the Deshpande Foundation, and has a $5 million annual budget for the program. Plans are already in place to repeat the program next year with two new groups of scientist-entrepreneurs.

Even the teams that don’t receive Phase II, follow-on grants will be in a much stronger position to apply for other types of grants, such as Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants, said Arkilic, a former SBIR program manager. “Some of these teams have made more progress in understanding what their opportunity is and repositioning their effort in six weeks than projects we’ve supported for six months,” he said.

I only saw half of last week’s presentations, but they covered a wide swath of technologies. The full list of 2011 I-Corps teams is here; below are my quick summaries of the technologies being developed by the companies I saw.

TexCone (University of Virginia, Charlottesvile: Laser-treated hydrophobic surfaces for reducing ice buildup on aircraft wings.

Ion Express (UCLA): Cheaper, simpler ion channel screening test systems for pharmaceutical companies.

BigData (George Washington University): Data mining for intelligence agencies and hedge-fund analysts.

Carbon Cultures (University of Washington): Conversion of timber waste into “biochar” for soil amendment.

Explosives Detection (University of Connecticut, Storrs): Nanocomposite materials that change their appearance under ultraviolet light when exposed to explosives.

Fluid Synchrony (USC): Miniaturized, implantable drug infusion pumps for control of chronic pain.

BiddingPal/iDecideFast (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign): Online tools based using psychological and decision science insights to help real-estate buyers and auction participants maximize their changes of submitting a winning bid.

Ground Fluor Pharmaceuticals (University of Nebraska, Lincoln): A cheaper, simpler system for synthesizing the radiopharmaceutical agents injected into patients before PET scans.

TOSCA (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute): “Terahertz on silicon chip arrays” for defense, aerospace, and security applications that require very fast on-chip processing.

GlucoSentient (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign): Technology that tweaks existing glucose meters to test for other health indicators such as HbA1C, a marker of diabetes.

Graphene Frontiers (University of Pennsylvania): A chemical vapor deposition method for growing sheets of carbon atoms on plastic or glass, for use as transparent conductors in solar panels, smart windows, or advanced displays.

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

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