Accelerating Experiential Learning Through the NSF I-Corps

Accelerating Experiential Learning Through the NSF I-Corps

Across most industries today, there is a universal shift towards agile product development and increasing pressure for more rapid commercialization of technology innovation.

Behind this shift are a few key driving forces:

  • To accelerate hands-on learning and market validation
  • To avoid the pitfalls of waterfall development methodologies that are heavy on paper output for the first 6-12 months
  • To be nimble enough to continuously improve on small feature sets tested in the market

Hands-on learning is exactly what most Northeastern students and alumni point to as pivotal inspiration or a competitive edge in launching their careers. The secret is clearly out on the benefits of Northeastern’s long history of experiential learning and most universities are now aligning around similar themes.

Cooperative education is great for helping students provide context to their classroom learning’s and find their way in the “real world.”

It can however be challenging to get some brilliant researchers, professors and technology experts out of their comfort zone in their labs. As Jane Mason recently wrote in her article Are You an Inventor, an Entrepreneur, or Both?, should inventors have the aspiration to become entrepreneurs, they will need to develop certain business skill sets and learn how to pivot around market validation they cannot get working in their labs.

I recently took on a new mentor assignment in Northeastern’s Health Sciences Entrepreneurs (HSE) program by working with an early stage university technology spinout. Historically this team had taken more of a bottoms-up view on their technology and associated value proposition, which was strongly anchored around their lab activities over the past 2-3 years. While the HSE program was a great match to help nurture this aspiring professor and PhD student, I also joined up with this team as their mentor in the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program. We collectively heard good things about the NSF I-Corps program and viewed it as a good way to kick-start our HSE activities at Northeastern. Little did we know, we were about to partake in an intense and demanding startup boot camp over the next 7 weeks.

Similar to military basic training, our tech team was quickly confronted with harsh realities and had to deal with difficult real world feedback that many of their value propositions were flawed.

Pressure from the I-Corps instructors had us blitz to obtain 100 customer interviews by the end of the program. Though there are clear benefits of quality vs. quantity of interviews, the added practice helped the team master their engagement and customer discovery skills without first talking about their technology.

The I-Corps program fostered narrowing down on an initial Minimum Viable Product (MVP) with a validated market fit vs. a technology centric approach of over-engineering too many features.

Similar to experiments in their labs, I-Corps teams learned how to define and test hypotheses and quickly iterate from learnings. Our team came to realize the underlying methodology as we continued to pivot the business over the 7 weeks towards the best commercial opportunity. Case in point, after a session with a potential partner, we were able to uncover a great, underserved market, with an easier regulatory path.

Building upon this and the I-Corps lean startup curriculum, we matured the broader business model around this product-market fit using the Business Model Canvas tool. Here we assessed and fine-tuned a diverse set of business and organizational needs by touching real world players in our value chain. We had the added challenge of understanding the complexities of the healthcare space, which is a multi-sided market. The Business Model Canvas helped our team map different strategies across user segments (e.g. varying patient, provider, payer and medical device supplier needs).

For the limited set of I-Corps teams that successfully found a good product-market fit, the challenges with determining pricing and a valid channel would clearly take more time than the remaining few weeks of the program. Ultimate pricing validation comes with a sales order and unfortunately there are some aspects of manufactured goods you cannot accelerate to that level.

The NSF is the largest source for seed investment in the US, having awarded $2.49 billion across 6,169 seed investments in 2014 in their SBIR/STTR programs alone. As the NSF is getting wiser as to who is deserving of their funding, so too should universities be demanding of their researchers to ensure they have real world validation of their technology and agile methodologies to navigate to faster commercialization timelines.

As noted, a MVP may be more quickly realizable to validate their underlying technology and solve a smaller initial market need. This is an important point from which great roadmaps are built and investments made.

Sure, we need some investment in pure research, but imagine the impact with even 25% greater, successful commercial output from the NSF and NIH (also using I-Corps) funded efforts.

What is the opportunity cost for many months (or years) of time spent in the lab with limited to no commercial context for the use of the technology innovation? This, as well as building a broader base of university based entrepreneurs across the country, is exactly what the NSF wants to address.

As a mentor with 20+ years of startup experience and formal tech innovation MBA training, many of the I-Corps methods were not new. It was however, a great refresher course, on the key things that really matter in the early entrepreneurial process.

For my PhD level tech team members, the experience was transformative and impactful. It invigorated them with a view into realistic commercial pathways to market for their technology and the newly acquired business acumen to get them across the finish line. I could now see them speaking with more confidence, presenting more thoughtful insights on user needs and proactively identifying business execution risks and mitigations.

We will continue to work as a team post I-Corps in the HSE program and I credit I-Corps with fast tracking us 6-12 months and better equipping our venture to navigate the often rocky road during commercial realization of their technology innovation. Whether it is a university spinout, venture funded business, or tech startup in your garage, the lean startup model works.

1 Comment

  1. Roy Miller 7 years ago

    So John, I can see how the I-Corps will push technologists out of their comfort zones ……. were there any techniques discussed on how to avoid “sliding back'”?

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