I’m of a certain age that when I hear I-Corps, I think of the television show M*A*S*H. The National Science Foundation (NSF) aims to shift that focus. Last week NSF announced the formation of the I-Corps, or Innovation Corps (video is also available). It’s a public-private partnership that would provide promising research teams additional support to accelerate transferring/transforming their research into market-ready innovations. The program will support up to 100 projects in the first year at $50,000 per project. The I-Corps has already hosted its first of a planned series of webinars to educate interested applicants on program requirements.
Arguably this corps is the next step in the gradual infusion of the technology transfer mission into the universities. It started with legislation it the 1980s that provided researchers and research institutions with more say over the use of intellectual property they generated with government support. Now we have what was supposedly not a mission agency supporting a very particular mission – the training of entrepreneurs. While I contend that NSF has never been just about supporting ‘basic’ research, this explicit embrace of an innovation mission may cause concern in some corners.
The program, a series of targeted training grants in entrepreneurship, is structured around three-person research teams: a PI (who must have received an NSF grant in the area of the innovation within the past five years), an I-Corp mentor (ideally local to the institution), and an Entrepreneurial Lead. The program envisions this last person as a postdoc or student who is familiar with the technology at issue. This person would presumably be the one who eventually commercializes the technology at the end of the six-month grant.
I don’t know that insisting that the Entrepreneurial Lead be a student or freshly minted-Ph.D. makes much sense. Perhaps the NSF is focused on training the next generation, rather than on maximizing innovative potential. Either goal is valid from a policy perspective, and I don’t know if the research on entrepreneurship suggests whether the nation needs more young innovators compared to part-timers or not.
The official announcement is thin on details, but the program solicitation and this Xconomy article provide some additional explanation of how this program is intended to unfold. It appears to be an effort to ramp up an entrepreneurship course taught at Stanford. While I can understand why NSF would be seeking a standardized, systematic effort to train entrepreneurs, I suspect the more lasting impact of this program would be in whatever networks it creates, both locally between universities and entrepreneurs, and across the country.
Bully on NSF for giving this kind of experiment an opportunity, though I’m not sanguine about there being a lot of interest in it. We’ll see how wrong I am in a few months.