An Entrepreneurial Bootcamp For Scientists?

2017-12-11T16:13:03+00:00 December 11, 2017|

What It Was

The House Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Technology held a hearing titled “From lab to market: A review of NSF Innovation Corps” to discuss successes and improvements to the six-year-old program.

Why It Matters

The number of global problems that could find solutions from the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are endless. Scientist have the curiosity and expertise for innovation; however, their lack of business training and necessary tools (e.g. market research, business language and terminology, and consumer knowledge) often lead to failure in getting technologies to market.

Key Points

Innovation Corps (I-Corps), a program of the National Science Foundation (NSF), is designed to strengthen the U.S. innovation ecosystem by training scientists to become business savvy.

The course involves pairing scientists with industry mentors, teaching business skills, and determining consumer interest. Dr. Dawn Tilbury (Assistant Director, Directorate for Engineering, NSF) described the program as a six-week bootcamp, where in the end participants either produce (commercialize the technology), improve (modify the product), or stop (there is no interest or customer). All witnesses agreed that the course has saved years of wasted time and tens of millions of dollars in federal and private investments by getting feedback before a product is created that no one wants.

Invited experts shared lessons learned from the first six years of I-Corps and offered ideas to improve the initiative, including expanding participant reach outside of academic institutions, encouraging women and minority involvement, and providing a phase two training on hiring staff and running a business. Representatives Elizabeth Etsy (CT-5) and Donald Beyer (VA-8) highlighted the gender and racial gap in the field and in start-ups, and Dr. Tilbury described NSF’s pilot project to broaden participation from these underrepresented groups and persons with disabilities.

There was unanimous bipartisan support for the program and interest in improving it. Mr. Steve Blank (Adjunct Professor, Management Science and Engineering, Stanford University) voiced the critical need for federal investment due to the shift by venture capitalists away from products that make the country better, safer, and more secure and toward those that make quick money (e.g. social media and phone apps).

Ranking Member Daniel Lipinski (IL-3) expressed the difficulty in overcoming traditional academic culture (e.g., tenure) and integrating business skills in the scientific setting. Dr. Dean Chang (Associate Vice President, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, University of Maryland and Lead Principal Investigator, DC I-Corps Regional Node) agreed and encouraged weaving innovation and entrepreneurship into the tenure evaluation process. He also proposed integrating concepts of the I-Corps model into required undergraduate coursework.

Representative Suzanne Bonamici (OR-1) expressed support for the program and concern for future scientists by reminding her colleagues that the tax reform bill has provisions to treat graduate tuition waivers as taxable income. “Our universities are very concerned… and I hope that the conference committee gets the message that this is going to set us back as a leader in innovation and research,” she stated.

Quotable

“Through research and activities like I-Corps, supported by the National Science Foundation, we have the opportunity to boost our economy, enhance our national security, strengthen our cybersecurity infrastructure, and create a STEM-job ready workforce.” – Chairwoman Barbara Comstock (VA-10)

“[Innovation Corps] is a really important topic, which I see as critical to U.S. competitiveness and to diversification of our STEM workforce.” – Representative Elizabeth Etsy (CT-5)

“In my view, the NSF I-Corps program’s strength is that it pushes researchers out of the lab and into the community to talk to potential customers, enabling them to better understand the value, or lack thereof, that their research has on these customers.” – Dr. Sue Carter (Professor, Department of Physics, and Director, Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurial Development, University of California Santa Cruz)

“Our observation six years ago is still true today – while these NSF-funded technologies can turn into future companies, most don’t fit the model of ‘grow to a billion-dollar valuation in three years’ that private incubators and accelerators are looking for… Yet for our country, turning these inventions into products might have the biggest payoff.” – Mr. Steve Blank (Adjunct Professor, Management Science and Engineering, Stanford University)

Next Steps

The hearing was intended for information gathering and may be used in the yet-to-be-introduced legislation Ranking Member Lipinski referenced during his opening statement, the Innovators to Entrepreneurs Act.

Find Out More

Watch the full hearing

 

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