The Government Starts an Incubator: The National Science Foundation Innovation Corps

Over the last two months the U.S. government has been running one of the most audacious experiments in entrepreneurship since World War II.

They launched an incubator for the top scientists and engineers in the U.S.

This week we saw the results.

63 scientists and engineers in 21 teams made 2,000 customer calls in 8 weeks, turning laboratory ideas into formidable startups. 19 of the 21 teams are moving forward in commercializing their technology.

It was an extraordinary effort.

Your Country Needs You
In July I got a call from Errol Arkilic, a program manager at the National Science Foundation (NSF), the $6.8-billion U.S. government agency that supports research in all the non-medical fields of science and engineering.  “We’ve been reading your blog about your Lean Launchpad class.”  Wow, that’s nice, I thought, a call from a fan. No, the conversation was about to get more interesting.

“Our country needs you.” Say what? “Part of the NSF charter is to commercialize the best of the science and engineering research we fund. We want to make a bet that your Lean Launchpad class can apply the scientific method to market-opportunity identification. We think your class can train scientists to start companies better than how we’re doing it now.”  Uh oh, where’s this heading?  “We want to select the best of our researchers, pay them $50,000 to take your class and see if we can change the outcome of their careers and their research.”

“That’s great, maybe I can set up a class for you next year,” I replied.  The answer shot back, “We want the class to start in 90 days,”

I remember thinking, “Wow, whoever’s on the other end of phone sounds just like an entrepreneur, they were asking for the impossible.”  Just as I was computing whether this was possible, he added, “And we want to bring 25 new teams every quarter.”

So of course, I said yes.

While they’ll never admit it, the National Science Foundation was starting an incubatorthe Innovation Corps – to take the most promising research projects in American university laboratories and turn them into startups.

The Innovation Corps – Using the Lean LaunchPad as an Incubator for Scientists and Engineers

The Innovation Corps Startup Team
These weren’t 22-year olds who wanted to build a social shopping web site. Each of the teams selected by the NSF had a Principal Investigator – a research scientist who was a University professor; an Entrepreneurial Lead – a graduate student working in the Investigator’s lab; and a mentor from their local area who had business and/or domain expertise. And they were hard at work at some real science.

The I-Corps Incubator Program
Unlike other incubators, our Lean LaunchPad Class had a specific curriculum. We taught them the business model / customer development / agile development solution stack. This methodology forces rapid hypothesis testing and Customer Development by getting out of the building while building the product. (The mentors in our program are there to support the methodology, but aren’t there to tell stories.)

The gamble was that we could train Professors doing hard-core science, who had never been near a startup or Silicon Valley, to get out of the building and talk to customers and Pivot as easily as someone at a web startup.

The Scientists, the NSF and the teaching team were all going to go where no one had before.

Given that Silicon Valley had started with scientists and engineers not MBA’s, I thought this was a bet worth making.

The Curriculum
Since the teams were in Universities scattered across the U.S., we couldn’t keep them in Silicon Valley for all 8 weeks, so we tried an experiment in teaching remotely.

First, we brought all 21 teams to Stanford for 3-days of 10 hour-a-day classes in business model design and customer development. After returning to their schools, they got out of their labs while they built their products. Once a week, via Webex,they presented their Customer Development progress on line to the teaching team and the other teams. Then it was our turn, and we lectured all the teams remotely. After 7 weeks they returned to Silicon Valley for their final presentations.

(The class syllabus is here. The class textbooks were “The Four Steps to the Epiphany and Business Model Generation.”)

Assembling the Teaching Team
We recruited two veteran Venture Capital partners to be part of the 10-week teaching team: Jon Feiber, at Mohr Davidow and John Burke of True Ventures. Alexander Osterwalder joined us for the opening day, and Oren Jacob, ex-CTO of Pixar joined us for a finale.

The First Class
As the first class settled into their seats at Stanford I wondered if we were going to be able to get them to act like startups. Most of the Principal Investigators were professors. Some had their own labs managing large groups of researchers. Their average age was in the mid-40’s. Their mentors were at least that old. Only the Entrepreneurial Leads (the PI’s assistants) were in their mid to late 20’s.

Looking at them  I wondered if: 1) hard-core science and engineering projects could rapidly pivot, 2) if the Principal Investigators would simply “assign” the work to their graduate students. I thought about the common wisdom that only 20-year olds doing Internet startups could be agile. Some incubators would have labeled this group too old to be entrepreneurs. I smiled as I realized that I was older than most (but not all) of them.

The Stanford Lectures
Our first lecture was about 1) how to organize their thinking of what it takes to build a startup – the business model canvas and 2) how to test their hypotheses – the Customer Development Process.

Since the first part of the lecture was about Alexander Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas, Osterwalder flew in from Switzerland to teach slides 20-76. And since the rest of the slides were about Customer Development, I taught those.

If you can’t see the slide deck above, click here.

The homework for the 21 teams in the next 24-hours? Come up with a business model canvas for their startup. And tell us how they will test each of their business model hypotheses.

As day one ended, I wondered what those canvases would look like.

Stay tuned for Part 2.
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Scientists Unleashed

Some men see things as they are and ask why.
Others dream things that never were and ask why not.

George Bernard Shaw

We’re in the middle of our National Science Foundation Innovation Corps class – taking the most promising research projects in American university laboratories and teaching these scientists the basics of entrepreneurship. Our goal is to accelerate the commercialization of their inventions. Our Lean LaunchPad class teaches scientists and engineers that starting a company is another research project that can be solved by an iterative process of hypotheses testing and experimentation built around the business model / customer development / agile development solution stack. It’s “the scientific method” applied to startups.

Although I typically don’t write about a class while it’s going on, I had to share this extraordinary reflection that Satish Kandlikar, one of the National Science Foundation principal investigators, posted to our Lean LaunchPad class blog.

Satish Kandlikar – The Spirit of Entrepreneurship
Satish Kandlikar has been a professor in the mechanical engineering department at the Rochester Institute of Technology for the past twenty-one years. His research is focused in the areas of flow boiling, critical heat flux, contact line heat transfer, and advanced cooling techniques

His team, Akara Lighting, wants to build a device for LED lights that gets rid of heat 50% better than anything on the market. This would result in LED’s having a higher performance at a reduced cost.

Here’s what he had to say about his experience in the Lean LaunchPad class ….

“It is quite an eye-opening experience to transition from an academic “PI” (Principal Investigator) to someone who wants to run a technology start-up. The change in the mindset is perhaps the important factor on the path to success…

The teaching team is simply phenomenal in identifying the pitfalls in our path and guiding us in finding the solutions. They have shown us the other side of the equation from technology to market acceptability. We have been extremely fortunate in having this kind of guidance and support.

A key finding I would like to report is that we just had another “pivot” two days ago when our mentor brought to our attention that we can succeed as a heat pipe company providing thermal solutions to various LED products as well as other applications. I visited two companies, one providing data center cooling solutions, and other providing control panel cooling systems. Key alliances are expected to occur through these initial, very positive, contacts.

One fundamental change that I see in my approach going forward is that I am looking at the research in a totally different way. It is no longer, in my mind, a means to publishing papers and simply graduating students. It means now, to me, how the research can be applied to make products that are accepted in marketplace. Making students understand the entire process, to whatever extent I can influence them, and inspiring them to aspire for transferring their knowledge to products is becoming an important thrust in my classroom interactions.

Another eye-opener was on understanding communications. While making presentations in academic setting, it was more of a paper-based research with extension of knowledge, without too much understanding of its application. Knowing the audience was really not a factor. Now after making “cold-calls”, and seeing that there is a certain way to get them interested in just a few opening sentences, was simply amazing. Knowing what their needs are is a crucial step.

Now it is becoming clear what Steve meant when he said, “get out of the building”. It is clear that the building referred to our mindset more than the physical act of going out or simply contacting someone outside.

The purpose of this posting was to document my beginning of the transformation process from an academician to an entrepreneur. And I am definitely enjoying it.”

Scientists Unleashed
Over fifty years ago Silicon Valley was born in an era of applied experimentation driven by scientists and engineers. Fifty years from now, we’ll look back to this current decade as the beginning of another revolution, where scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs were integrated into the fabric of society faster than they had ever been before, unleashing a new era for a new American economy built on entrepreneurship and innovation.

And scientists like Satish Kandlikar and the National Science Foundation will lead the way.
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Eureka! A New Era for Scientists and Engineers

Silicon Valley was born in an era of applied experimentation driven by scientists and engineers. It wasn’t pure research, but rather a culture of taking sufficient risks to get products to market through learning, discovery, iteration and execution. This approach would shape Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial ethos: In startups, failure was treated as experience (until you ran out of money).

The combination of Venture Capital and technology entrepreneurship is one of the great business inventions of the last 50 years. It provides private funds for untested and unproven technology and entrepreneurs. While most of these investments fail, the returns for the ones that win are so great they make up for the failures. The cultural tolerance for failure and experimentation, and a financial structure which balanced risk, return and obscene returns, allowed this system flourish in technology clusters in United States, particularly in Silicon Valley.

Yet this system isn’t perfect. From the point of view of scientists and engineers in a university lab, too often entrepreneurship in all its VC-driven glory – income statements, balance sheets, business plans, revenue models, 5-year forecasts, etc. – seems like another planet. There didn’t seem to be much in common between the Scientific Method and starting a company. And this has been a barrier to commercializing the best of our science research.

Until today.

Today, the National Science Foundation (NSF) – the $6.8-billion U.S. government agency that supports research in all the non-medical fields of science and engineering - is changing the startup landscape for scientists and engineers. The NSF has announced the Innovation Corps – a program to take the most promising research projects in American university laboratories and turn them into startups. It will train them with a process that embraces experimentation, learning, and discovery.

The NSF will fund 100 science and engineering research projects every year. Each team accepted into the program will receive $50,000.

To commercialize these university innovations NSF will be putting the Innovation Corps (I-Corps) teams through a class that teaches scientists and engineers to treat starting a company as another research project that can be solved by an iterative process of hypotheses testing and experimentation. The class will be a version of the Lean LaunchPad class we developed in the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, (the entrepreneurship center at Stanford’s School of Engineering).


This is a big deal. Not just for scientists and engineers, not just for every science university in the U.S., but in the way we think about bringing discoveries ripe for innovation out of the university lab. If this program works it will change how we connect basic research to the business world. And it will lead to more startups and job creation.


Introducing the Innovation-Corps
The NSF Innovation-Corps program (I-Corps) is designed to help bridge the gap between the many scientists and engineers with innovative research and technologies, but little knowledge of the first steps to take in starting a company.

I-Corps will help scientists take the first steps from the research lab to commercialization.

Over a period of six months, each I-Corps team, guided by experienced mentors (entrepreneurs and VC’s) will build their product and get out of their labs (and comfort zone) to discover who are their potential customers, and how those customers might best use the new technology/invention. They’ll explore the best way to deliver the product to customers, the resources required, as well as competing technologies.  They will answer the question, “What value will this innovation add to the marketplace? And they’ll do this using the business model / customer development / agile development solution stack.

At the end of the program each team will understand what it will takes to turn their research into a commercial success. They may decide to license their intellectual property based on their research. Or they may decide to cross the Rubicon and try to get funded as a startup (with strategic partners, investors, or NSF programs for small businesses). At the end of the class there will be a Demo Day when investors get to see the best this country’s researchers have to offer.

What Took You So Long
A first reaction to the NSF I-Corps program might be, “You mean we haven’t already been doing this?”  But on reflection it’s clear why.  The common wisdom was that for scientists and engineers to succeed in the entrepreneurial world you’d have to teach them all about business. But it’s only now that we realize that’s wrong.  The insight the NSF had is that we just need to teach scientists and engineers to treat business models as another research project that can be solved with learning, discovery and experimentation.

And Stanford’s Lean LaunchPad class could do just that.

Join the I-Corps
Today at 2pm the National Science Foundation is publishing the application for admission (what they call the “solicitation for proposals”) to the program. See the NSF web page here.

The syllabus for NSF I-Corps version of the Lean LaunchPad class can be seen here.

Along with a great teaching team at Stanford, world-class VC’s who get it, and foundation partners, I’m proud to be a part of it.

This is a potential game changer for science and innovation in the United States.

Join us.

Apply now.
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How Scientists and Engineers Got It Right, and VC’s Got It Wrong

Scientists and engineers as founders and startup CEOs is one of the least celebrated contributions of Silicon Valley.

It might be its most important.

ESL, the first company I worked for in Silicon Valley, was founded by a PhD in Math and six other scientists and engineers. Since it was my first job, I just took for granted that scientists and engineers started and ran companies.  It took me a long time to realize that this was one of Silicon Valley’s best contributions to innovation.

Cold War Spin Outs
In the 1950’s the groundwork for a culture and environment of entrepreneurship were taking shape on the east and west coasts of the United States. Each region had two of the finest research universities in the United States, Stanford and MIT, which were building on the technology breakthroughs of World War II and graduating a generation of engineers into a consumer and cold war economy that seemed limitless. Each region already had the beginnings of a high-tech culture, Boston with Raytheon, Silicon Valley with Hewlett Packard.

However, the majority of engineers graduating from these schools went to work in existing companies.  But in the mid 1950’s the culture around these two universities began to change.

Stanford – 1950’s Innovation
At Stanford, Dean of Engineering/Provost Fred Terman wanted companies outside of the university to take Stanford’s prototype microwave tubes and electronic intelligence systems and build production volumes for the military. While existing companies took some of the business, often it was a graduate student or professor who started a new company. The motivation in the mid 1950’s for these new startups was a crisis – we were in the midst of the cold war, and the United States military and intelligence agencies were rearming as fast as they could.

Why It’s “Silicon” Valley
In 1956 entrepreneurship as we know it would change forever.  At the time it didn’t appear earthshaking or momentous. Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory, the first semiconductor company in the valley, set up shop in Mountain View. Fifteen months later eight of Shockley’s employees (three physicists, an electrical engineer, an industrial engineer, a mechanical engineer, a metallurgist and a physical chemist) founded Fairchild Semiconductor.  (Every chip company in Silicon Valley can trace their lineage from Fairchild.)

The history of Fairchild was one of applied experimentation. It wasn’t pure research, but rather a culture of taking sufficient risks to get to market. It was learning, discovery, iteration and execution.  The goal was commercial products, but as scientists and engineers the company’s founders realized that at times the cost of experimentation was failure. And just as they don’t punish failure in a research lab, they didn’t fire scientists whose experiments didn’t work. Instead the company built a culture where when you hit a wall, you backed up and tried a different path. (In 21st century parlance we say that innovation in the early semiconductor business was all about “pivoting” while aiming for salable products.)

The Fairchild approach would shape Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial ethos: In startups, failure was treated as experience (until you ran out of money.)

Scientists and Engineers as Founders
In the late 1950’s Silicon Valley’s first three IPO’s were companies that were founded and run by scientists and engineers: Varian (founded by Stanford engineering professors and graduate students,) Hewlett Packard (founded by two Stanford engineering graduate students) and Ampex (founded by a mechanical/electrical engineer.) While this signaled that investments in technology companies could be very lucrative, both Shockley and Fairchild could only be funded through corporate partners – there was no venture capital industry. But by the early 1960′s the tidal wave of semiconductor startup spinouts from Fairchild would find a valley with a growing number of U.S. government backed venture firms and limited partnerships.

A wave of innovation was about to meet a pile of risk capital.

For the next two decades venture capital invested in things that ran on electrons: hardware, software and silicon. Yet the companies were anomalies in the big picture in the U.S. – there were almost no MBA’s. In 1960’s and ‘70’s few MBA’s would give up a lucrative career in management, finance or Wall Street to join a bunch of technical lunatics. So the engineers taught themselves how to become marketers, sales people and CEO’s. And the venture capital community became comfortable in funding them.

Medical Researchers Get Entrepreneurial
In the 60’s and 70’s, while engineers were founding companies, medical researchers and academics were skeptical about the blurring of the lines between academia and commerce. This all changed in 1980 with the Genentech IPO.

In 1973, two scientists, Stanley Cohen at Stanford and Herbert Boyer at UCSF, discovered recombinant DNA, and Boyer went on to found Genentech. In 1980 Genentech became the first IPO of a venture funded biotech company. The fact that serious money could be made in companies investing in life sciences wasn’t lost on other researchers and the venture capital community.

Over the next decade, medical graduate students saw their professors start companies, other professors saw their peers and entrepreneurial colleagues start companies, and VC’s started calling on academics and researchers and speaking their language.

Scientists and Engineers = Innovation and Entrepreneurship
Yet when venture capital got involved they brought all the processes to administer existing companies they learned in business school – how to write a business plan, accounting, organizational behavior, managerial skills, marketing, operations, etc. This set up a conflict with the learning, discovery and experimentation style of the original valley founders.

Yet because of the Golden Rule, the VC’s got to set how startups were built and managed (those who have the gold set the rules.)

Fifty years later we now know the engineers were right. Business plans are fine for large companies where there is an existing market, product and customers, but in a startup all of these elements are unknown and the process of discovering them is filled with rapidly changing assumptions.

Startups are not smaller versions of large companies. Large companies execute known business models. In the real world a startup is about the search for a business model or more accurately, startups are a temporary organization designed to search for a scalable and repeatable business model.

Yet for the last 40 years, while technical founders knew that no business plan survived first contact with customers, they lacked a management tool set for learning, discovery and experimentation.

Earlier this year we developed a class in the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, (the entrepreneurship center at Stanford’s School of Engineering), to provide scientists and engineers just those tools – how to think about all the parts of building a business, not just the product. The Stanford class introduced the first management tools for entrepreneurs built around the business model / customer development / agile development solution stack. (You can read about the class here.)

So what?

Starting this Thursday, scientists and engineers across the United States will once again set the rules.

Stay tuned for the next post.
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