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

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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.”

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Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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