ARLINGTON, Va. – A new public-private effort aimed at strengthening the U.S. “innovation ecosystem” seeks to leverage promising technologies emerging from university labs so that they can quickly be turned into products.
The Innovation Corps is the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) response to growing economic pressures to find new ways to leverage investments in basic research in science and engineering. NSF Director Subra Suresh spearheaded the launch of the “I-Corps” last July. Suresh is the former dean of engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a hotbed for technology spinoffs.
Twenty one teams were selected last October for the first round of I-Corps funding. They received relatively modest $50,000 awards to begin assessing the commercial prospects of their technology concepts. Program managers said they are preparing to select individual projects that would bring together researchers and entrepreneurs to find new ways to transform emerging technologies into viable commercial products.
Candidate projects range from water purification systems and MEMS-based medical devices to single-crystal graphene films and hydrocarbon sensors.
I-Corps program manager Errol Arkilic called the initial awards “catalytic funding” that would bring together researchers and entrepreneurs to find new ways to “get stuff out of the lab” and into commercial markets. The resulting innovation ecosystem also would allow lean entrepreneurs to quickly gauge commercial interest in their technologies.
The I-Corps approach relies heavily on principles developed by the lean startup movement championed by serial entrepreneurs like Steve Blank. Blank helped found eight Silicon Valley companies, including Zilog and MIPS Computers. NSF is seeking to leverage that model to establish a nimble program with access to emerging technologies that could be quickly transformed into prototype products. The next step, according to Arkilic, is determining whether “anybody cares about the product and whether you can deliver value.”
NSF officials stressed that I-Corps also was created to identify and commercialize “low-hanging fruit” at NSF-funded university labs. By subjecting researchers and their technologies to the rigors of commercial markets, program managers hope to seed an innovation ecosystem that might serve as a new engine of U.S. economic growth.
Indeed, economists see the U.S. system of basic research as one of the few remaining U.S. competitive advantages as innovation in areas like manufacturing shift steadily to Asia, especially China. The U.S. continues to lead in basic research and remains “the best place in the world if you have an idea and you want to make into a new product or new service,” Dan Breznitz, a professor of international affairs at Georgia Tech, told a recent congressional hearing on Chinese innovation. “What we are not good at is once any of those ideas actually involve production.”
Precisely how new ideas generated in university labs can be transformed into new products and markets is one of the fundamental goals of the I-Corps program, organizers said. Arkilic stressed that I-Corps teams consisting of researchers, mentors from the VC industry and entrepreneurs will work together to survey the competitive landscape for emerging technologies, determine the resources needed to bring promising technologies to market and determine what value a technology innovation can deliver to a particular market.
Among the well-heeled private sector members of the I-Corps are the foundation created by venture capitalist and Sycamore Networks founder Desh Deshpande and the Kauffman Foundation, which among things funds U.S. technology innovation programs.
NSF is seeking $18.8 million in fiscal 2013 to continue funding I-Corps projects.