Fourteen teams from universities and institutions across the Northeast are participating in a new region-wide program to help researchers explore how their discoveries can improve everyday lives and meet the needs of customers and industry.
The Innovation-Corps (I-Corps) Northeast Hub is a nationally recognized training program to encourage researchers to explore the creation of startups or other ventures that can take fledgling technologies to the product and industry stage.
The program is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) with the goal of accelerating the economic and societal benefits that arise from the federal funding of research.
Since its founding in 2011, NSF I-Corps has trained over 5,700 individuals from 1,280 organizations, resulting in more than 1,000 startups formed and additional $760 million in follow-on funding raised to support startups, hire workers and contribute to the economy.
Participants are researchers at universities and institutions who typically have little experience in entrepreneurship or startups.
“We help researchers learn how to explore the value of their discoveries as potential new technologies or products in a real-world setting,” said Christina Pellicane, lead instructor for the I-Corps Northeast Hub and assistant director for innovation at Princeton University. “We call this evidence-based entrepreneurship.”
The I-Corps Northeast Hub launched in 2022 with a greater focus on working regionally and on ensuring that the opportunities reach diverse and inclusive audiences of academic entrepreneurs.
Eleven of the 17 leadership positions in the I-Corps Northeast Hub are women or members of other groups underrepresented in entrepreneurship. In Hub’s first program offering, 75% of the teachers and mentors are women or members of underrepresented groups.
“We're on a mission to make I-Corps look more like the mosaic of innovation and entrepreneurship,” said Julius Korley, co-director of the I-Corps Northeast Hub and director of entrepreneurship and strategic partnerships at the College of Engineering at the University of Delaware. “One of our goals is broadening participation, both as instructors who are teaching but also innovators being trained.”
Korley said that I-Corps has a tremendous track record of aiding the transition of federally funded research into products and services that are in use today.
“There have been startups, jobs and wealth created,” Korley said, “but more importantly, people's lives have been enhanced and changed for the better, because of these technological advances making it to market.”
Participants in the Hub’s program consist of faculty members, graduate students and postdoctoral researchers who work in teams, each focused on exploring the potential of a specific discovery or invention.
These discoveries have the potential to address major challenges in biotechnology, pharmaceutical technologies, digital health, advanced materials and robotics. Inventions range from a novel bioreactor for the production of alternative meat to a transgenic line of mosquitoes to inhibit malaria, to a unique robotics system for improved worker health in warehouses.
The teams attend four sessions led by experienced entrepreneurship instructors and work with practiced mentors.
The key activity of the program, however, is the conducting of interviews with potential customers for the technology. Each team will conduct at least 10 such interviews.
Customer interviews ensure that the participants can evaluate the need for their discovery.
“The number one reason that startups fail is because they build a product that nobody wants,” said Lori Dars, I-Corps co-instructor and associate director of the Office of Economic Development and Innovation at Rutgers University.
Dars outlined the process to participants during the first program session.
“We're going to give you interviewing skills and show you how to engage with your customers, with partners, and with mentors,” Dars told participants. “We will encourage you to ‘get out of the building,’ as we call it, or to get off campus and really focus on doing that discovery.”
Korley has direct experience with I-Corps as an academic entrepreneur. He participated in I-Corps as a team when co-founding the startup company, Affinity Therapeutics, where he served as president and CEO.
“I-Corps helped me save my company from some of the most common forms of failure that you all are going to learn in this training,” Korley said to the participants. “It helped me to avoid the major reasons that startups do fail. Now it's your turn.”