MENLO PARK, Calif. – When National Science Foundation officials needed help mentoring the next generation of technology entrepreneurs, they immediately turned to lean startup guru Steve Blank.
Blank, author of “The Startup Owners’ Manual,” is also a lecturer at Stanford University’s Department of Management Science and Engineering as well as the University of California at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. Since last year when it was founded, Blank also serves as lead instructor for the NSF’s Innovation Corps program.
The serial entrepreneur launched no less than eight technology startups before “retiring” in 1999. Among them were Zilog, MIPS Computers, Rocket Science Games, Ardent and E.piphany. The score card, according to Bland, reads like this: “Two large craters (Rocket Science and Ardent), one dot.com bubble home run (E.piphany) and several base hits.”
Based on that track record, Blank said over coffee recently that “we kind of made a mistake for the last 40 years. We’ve been treating startups like smaller versions of large companies. What we know now is that simply is not true.”
Despite growing momentum for the I-Corps program, Blank found himself on the hot seat this week (July 16) during a House Science Committee hearing on the NSF program. In a war of dueling press releases, GOP critics like Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Science R&D subcommittee, insisted the program is “unsustainable” in an era of budget deficits and that I-Corps ultimately puts the government in the position of picking “commercial winners and losers.”
The NSF is expected to spend about $5 million on I-Corps teams in fiscal 2012 and is requesting $19 million in fiscal 2013 to ramp up the program.
Each I-Corps team receives a $50,000 grant, then Blank puts candidate startups through their paces by getting entrepreneurs “out of the building” to meet with as many as 100 potential customers over the course of eight weeks to gain a deeper understanding of the market for their technology.
During this week’s hearing, Blank fired back at the program’s critics: “The I-Corps program does not pick winners and losers. It doesn’t replace private capital with government funds. Its goal is to get research the country has already paid for to the point where a team can attract private capital in the shortest period of time.”
With NSF managers preparing to expand the I-Corps program to 175 teams this year, both sides in the innovation debate may have an answer soon about whether Blank’s lean startup approach fundamentally changes the way tech entrepreneurs operate and succeed.