Making a Dent in the Universe – Results from the NSF I-Corps

Our goal teaching for the National Science Foundation was to make a dent in the universe.

Could we actually teach tenured faculty how to turn an idea into a company?  And if we did, could it change their lives?

We can now answer these questions.

Hell yes.


The Lean LaunchPad class for the National Science Foundation (NSF)
Over the last 6 months, we’ve been teaching a version of the Lean LaunchPad class for the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps.  We’ve taught two cohorts: 21 teams ending in December 2011, and 24 teams ending in May 2012. In July 2012 we’ll teach 50 more teams, and another 50 in October. Each 3-person team consists of a Principal Investigator, an Entrepreneurial Lead and a Mentor.

The Principal Investigator (average age of ~45) is a tenured faculty running their own research lab who has had an active NSF grant within the last 5 years. The Principal Investigator forms the team by selecting one of his graduate students to be the Entrepreneurial Lead.

The Entrepreneurial Lead is a graduate student or post doc (average age ~ 28) who works within the Principal Investigator’s lab. If a commercial venture comes out of the I-Corps, it’s more than likely that the Entrepreneurial Lead will take an active role in the new company. (Typically Principal Investigators stay in their academic role and continue as an advisor to the new venture.)

Mentors (average age ~50) are an experienced entrepreneur located near the academic institution and has experience in transiting technology out of academic labs. Mentors are recommended by the Principal Investigator (who has worked with them in the past) or they may be a member of the NSF I-Corps Mentor network. Some mentors may become an active participant in a startup that comes out of the class.

The NSF I-Corps: Class Goals
The NSF I-Corps Lean LaunchPad class has different goals then the same class taught in a university or incubator. In a university, the Lean LaunchPad class teaches a methodology the students can use for the rest of their careers. In an incubator, the Lean LaunchPad develops angel or venture-funded startups.

Unlike an incubator or university class, the goal of the NSF I-Corps is to teach researchers how to move their technology from an academic lab into the commercial world. A successful outcome is a startup or a patent or technology license to a U.S. company.

(While many government agencies use Technology Readiness Levels to measure a projects technical maturity, there are no standards around Business Maturity Levels. The output of the NSF I-Corps class provides a proxy.)

The NSF I-Corps doesn’t pick winners or losers. It doesn’t replace private capital with government funds. Its goal is to get research the country has already paid for educated to the point where they can attract private capital. (It’s why we teach the class with experienced Venture Capitalists.)

Teaching Objectives
Few of the Principal Investigators or Entrepreneurial Leads had startup experience, and few of the mentors were familiar with Business Model design or Customer Development.

Therefore, the teaching objectives of the I-Corps class are:

1) Help each team understand that a successful company was more than just their technology/invention by introducing all the parts of a business model (customers, channel, get/keep/grow, revenue models, partners, resources, activities and costs.)

2) Get the teams out of the building to test their hypotheses with prospective customers. The teams in the first cohort averaged 80 customer meetings per team; the second cohort spoke to an average of 100.

3) Motivate the teams to pursue  commercialization of their idea. The best indicators of their future success were whether they a) found a scalable business model, b) had an interest in starting a company, and c) would pursue additional funding.

The National Science Foundation worked with NCIIA to establish a baseline of what the students knew before the class and followed it up with a questionaire after the class.

While my experience in teaching students at Stanford, Berkeley and Columbia told me that this class was an effective way to teach all the parts that make up a startup, would the same approach work with academic researchers?

Here’s what they found.

Teams came into the class knowing little about what parts made up a company business model (customers, channel, get/keep/grow, revenue models, partners, resources, activities and costs.) They left with very deep knowledge.

I-Corps teams spent the class refining their business model and minimum viable product. By the end of the class:

  • Over 95% believed that they found a scalable business model.
  • 98% felt that they had found “product/market fit”.

The class increased everyones interest in starting a company. 92% said they were going to go out and raise money – either from the NSF or with private capital. (This was a bit astonishing. Given that most of them didn’t know what a startup was coming in. These are new jobs being created.)

One of the unexpected consequences of the class was its effect on the Principal Investigators, (almost all tenured professors.)  A surprising number said the ideas for the class will impact their research, and 98% of all of the attendees said it was going to be used in their careers.

Another unexpected result was the impact the class had on the professors own thinking about how they would teach their science and engineering students. We got numerous comments about “I’m going to get my department to teach this.”

What’s Next
The NSF and NCIIA understand that the analysis doesn’t end by just studying the results of each cohort. We need to measure what happens to the teams and each of the team members (Principal Investigator, Entrepreneurial Lead and Mentor) over time. It’s only after a longitudinal study that will take years, can we see how deep of a dent we made in the universe.

But I think we’ve made a start.

Thanks to the team at NCIIA that provided the questionaire and analytical data (Angela Shartrand) and the logistical support (Anne Hendrixson) to run these NSF classes.

The National Science Foundation (Errol Arkilic, Babu DasGupta) took a chance at changing the status quo.

Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle who’ve realized cracking the code on how to teach starting companies means a brighter day for the future of  all jobs in the United States – not just tech startups.

And thanks to the venture capitalists and entrepreneurs who volunteer their time for their country; Jon Feiber from MDV, John Burke from True Ventures, Jim Hornthal from CMEA, Jerry Engel from Monitor Ventures (and the U.C. Berkeley Haas Business School,) Oren Jacob from ToyTalk and Lisa Forssell of Pixar.

And to our new teaching teams at University of Michigan and Georgia Tech – It’s your turn.

Lessons Learned

  • The Lean LaunchPad class (Business Model design+Customer Development+ extreme hands-on) works
  • They leave knowing:
    • how to search for a business model (customers, channel, get/keep/grow, revenue models, partners, resources, activities and costs,)
    • how to find product/market fit, and a scalable business model
  • It has the potential to change careers, lives and our country

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23 Responses

  1. Evel Knievel for the Valley of Death. Congrats!

  2. Reblogged this on Ode To Capitalism.

  3. Great work! Do you think it’s possible to offer this same kind of program to the Arts and Creative Content suppliers?

  4. Very positive beginning and early indicators of changing behavior are spectacular. Great job, Steve and team.

  5. I’m a big fan of the Lean Launchpad approach.

    I’m not so big of a fan of the conclusion based on these snazzy charts.

    “Over 95% believed that they found a scalable business model.”

    Great, they believe it. But does it lead to profitable businesses?

    “Teams came into the class knowing little about what parts made up a company business model (customers, channel, get/keep/grow, revenue models, partners, resources, activities and costs.) They left with very deep knowledge.”

    The fact that the participants wound up with considerably more knowledge about the business model canvas that when they started is hardly surprising. It’s about as surprising as discovering that after a maths class, students seem to know more about basic arithmetic. It is borderline tautological.

    “The Lean LaunchPad class (Business Model design+Customer Development+ extreme hands-on) works”

    I believe this wholeheartedly…but not because of any of these charts, because I’ve seen it work in action.

    The BMC, cusdev, and the Lean Launch Pad deserve more hard facts than ‘98% felt that they had found “product/market fit”.’

    I agree, it’s a great start. I just hope there is more academic focus on hard data from successful companies and not “I believe” statements.

    • Tristan,
      Always looking for more people who want to volunteer a few months of their time helping teach. Then you could help us raise the academic standards.


      • Your academic standards are world class already!

        I just wish there was more research in this area. Hopefully Max and his cohort will bring up the game by challenging academia.

        I will help any way I can. Might be time to bring you back to LSC.

    • I agree that we need more research, but I would also contend that, while we are ultimately interested in the success of the underlying business models, the value of the program is in fact in changing the perspective and confidence of America’s great inventors/innovators.

      The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor – tracking levels of entrepreneurship in dozens of countries – has proven that the level of entrepreneurship impacts the level of economic growth. However, even in the best and most vibrant economies, no more than 10-12% of the adult population between the ages of 18 – 65 is actively engaging in entrepreneurial activity. Economist William Baumel argues that there are two fundamental factors that differentiate those who do engage in entrepreneurial activity from those who do not – perspective and confidence (self-efficacy). These ARE the antecedents to entrepreneurial behavior. In other words, the impact of our start ups on job creation will be measured by the degree to which the I-Corps graduates start companies that survive to create jobs. However, whether they start those companies or NOT will be determined by their perception of the opportunity and their confidence that they can succeed if they try.

      Bandura claims that 1/3 of the difference between those that take action in pursuit of opportunity can be explained by the degree of confidence they have that they will succeed. If I-Corps does NOTHING more than get 1/3 more inventors pursuing the market opportunities around their technologies because they think they can, the impact on our economy would be unprecedented. We would witness a true revolution and would see significant job creation even if the probability of success did not improve.

      I believe Steve has the program emphasis on the real issue, and we simply should be monitoring whether they follow through or not on their scalable business models and product market fit.

      • Follow through % would be an interesting metric worth tracking for most incubators and very early stage programs such as StartupWeekend. I think less relevant for I-Corps as there is a more rigorous screening process to get into the program which is going to bias the follow through metric.

        You’d need a control group of people who would normally be accepted to I-Corp but are deliberately rejected and then tracked.

        One other thing you mentioned, I always hear about levels of entrepreneurship as directly correlated to economic growth, particularly from the mouths of politicians. I am not sure about this.

        I have read some opposite source material, but admit I don’t have the link off the top of my head, so take it with a grain of salt:

        Entrepreneurial activity is inversely correlated to economic growth. It’s highest in regions with high unemployment because those people can’t find a job…they have to go make one for themselves.

        Ergo, if we want to increase entrepreneurial activity, we should tank the economy.

        Obviously this is crazy, but I think it speaks to idea that we sometimes look for correlation when we should be looking for causation.

        I would be interested in seeing the % of GDP coming from companies created in last 5 years by industry sector.

  6. Awesome, exciting work Steve! So great to hear the deepest of the technicians love it as much as we do.

  7. Hi Steve, thanks for sharing this insightful experience.

    I have been focusing for a while now on the possibility to apply to lean launch pad to foster innovation in larger corporations. Can you provide any references on this topic?


    • Stefano,
      My co-author Bob Dorf has spent the last few years years working with some of the largest companies in the U.S. and abroad do just that.

      Drop us a line and we can continue the conversation.


  8. * It would be good if you could post more on how you deploy volunteers and what you expect of them.
    * I think it may motivate more people to volunteer.

  9. Thanks Steve, this sounds great. Where can i contact you? What we are trying to do is to take a few managers from some large companies along a journey with local startups and help them use what they learn in their corporate job.

    looking forward to learn your and Bob’s perspective on this topic,


  10. Hi Steve,

    I recently bought a copy of your book “The Startup Owner’s Manual” and have been working my way through it. I would desperately love to attend your Lean Launchpad class. I’ll go wherever to attend it, do you have any coming up that I could come to?

    Thanks for the great book!

  11. Hi Steve, waiting for your online lean launchpad class. any updates?also what graduate entrepreneurship program would you recommend. Thanks for your guidance.

  12. Great program! Be sure to focus on the requirements side of the project lifecycle to be sure the idea is clearly realized in the Lauchpad development stage. Here’s a quick article that explains why and how software requirements contribute to a truly successful project!

  13. […] on the I-Corps program, read the official University of Michigan program announcement or the write-up by I-Corps founder, Steve Blank. Recommend on Facebook Share on Linkedin Tweet about it Subscribe to the comments on this post […]

  14. Great program Steve.
    We do a similar program here in the Netherlands by providing a program and coaching to students at levels and topics. Thus let them experience what entrepreneurship is all about with real tools, products, plans, sales etc. We call this learning by doing.
    Why not do some international exchange? Open to help!

  15. […] chambers of commerce.  The program is funded by the Colombian government and modeled after the NSF Innovation-Corps program created and built by my partner and co-author Steve […]

  16. […] retrospect we designed something akin to a startup accelerator, the Lean LaunchPad classes or the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps, although none of these existed […]

  17. […] we designed something akin to a startup accelerator, the Lean LaunchPad classes or the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps, although none of these existed in […]

  18. […] country and from our region. Since 2013, DC I-Corps has trained over 150 teams with the kind of impact NSF and Steve envisioned when they launched the program. That impact is now accelerating with the […]

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