NSF I-Corps Is Catalyst for Innovation

By Victoria Scarborough, Ph.D., The ChemQuest Group

I spent last summer working as a mentor for a startup company chosen to participate in the National Science Foundation (NSF) I-Corps Program. If you are not familiar with this program, it was started in 2011 by the NSF to reduce the time and risk associated with translating promising ideas and technologies from laboratory to marketplace. It aims to maintain U.S. competitiveness in science and technology.

Approximately 20 to 30 teams participate in the curriculum as part of an I-Corps Cohort. Each team has three members: the technical lead, the entrepreneurial lead, and the I-Corps mentor. All team members fully participate in the I-Corps curriculum, which provides real-world, hands-on, immersive learning about what it takes to successfully transfer knowledge and to create successful products or processes. The I-Corps curriculum is not about how to write a research paper, business plan, or NSF proposal. Instead, the I-Corps team is engaged with industry—talking to customers, partners, and competitors; and getting out of the laboratory to explore the commercial potential of a technology idea.

This was hard work, as the program resembles an immersion-style bootcamp. The requirement of 100% participation and attendance meant focusing all of your time, attention, and best efforts on the scheduled tasks. The I-Corps teachers and staff are specially trained to push you to find and articulate value propositions, business models, technology ecosystems, and potential competitors and partners for your technology. A key component of the program is to get out of the building. Each I-Corp team is awarded $50K to conduct over 100 in-person customer interviews over a six-week time frame. Funding is used to travel to wherever you can conduct interviews with people who may provide insight into your area of interest. For example, if a team had a technology that might be a useful paint additive, interviews would be scheduled with raw material vendors, paint manufacturers, painting companies, scale-up manufacturers, end-use customers, and retail store managers. A requirement for the interview was to ask questions about the business model but not disclose anything about your new technology. This approach forces you to focus, listen, and learn about what is important to the customer, instead of selling yourself in the interview. Interview questions were designed to extract information in 20 minutes or less and were built on key elements like:

  • Know your goals and questions ahead of time
  • Get ready to hear things you do not want to hear
  • Disarm politeness training by asking for brutal honesty
  • Ask open-ended questions
  • Listen, do not talk
  • Follow your nose and drill down
  • Ask for introductions to others that may be helpful
  • Look for patterns to emerge about this business ecosystem

The I-Corp staff said that after about 60 interviews, you begin to have an aha moment, when the picture becomes clearer as to the viability of your technology in the business ecosystem, and who will care enough to buy your product. This was indeed true! In the end, this clearer understanding of the key business drivers may reduce the time it takes to transfer your technology from the laboratory to the marketplace.

The I-Corps Program has relevance for the paint and coatings industry in several ways. First, serving as a mentor to an I-Corps team can provide a great benefit because you bring insider knowledge and expertise. Technology startup businesses are where new innovations are born. Nurturing their success may benefit the entire industry. And, second, if you are looking for innovation, it might be a good idea to scout out technology companies that have been I-Corps trained. They may understand your business model better than you think!

CoatingsTech | Vol. 17, No. 3 | March 2020

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