Innovation – something both parties can agree on

icorps-logoOn the last day Congress was in session in 2016, Democrats and Republicans agreed on a bill that increased innovation and research for the country.

For me, seeing Congress pass this bill, the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act, was personally satisfying. It made the program I helped start, the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (I-Corps) a permanent part of the nation’s science ecosystem. I-Corps uses Lean Startup methods to teach scientists how to turn their discoveries into entrepreneurial, job-producing businesses.  I-Corps bridges the gap between public support of basic science and private capital funding of new commercial ventures. It’s a model for a government program that’s gotten the balance between public/private partnerships just right. Over 1,000 teams of our nation’s best scientists have been through the program.

The bill directs the expansion of I-Corps to additional federal agencies and academic institutions, as well as through state and local governments.  The new I-Corps authority also supports prototype or proof-of-concept development activities, which will better enable researchers to commercialize their innovations. The bill also explicitly says that turning federal research into companies is a national goal to promote economic growth and benefit society. For the first time, Congress has recognized the importance of government-funded entrepreneurship and commercialization education, training, and mentoring programs specifically saying that this will improve the nation’s competitiveness. And finally this bill acknowledges that networks of entrepreneurs and mentors are critical in getting technologies translated from the lab to the marketplace.

uncle-sam-2This bipartisan legislation was crafted by senators Cory Gardner (R–CO) and Gary Peters (D–MI). Senator John Thune (R–SD) chairs the Senate commerce and science committee that crafted S. 3084. After years of contention over reauthorizing the National Science Foundation, House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith and Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson worked to negotiate the agreement that enabled both the House and the Senate to pass this bill.

While I was developing the class at Stanford, it was my counterparts at the NSF who had the vision to make the class a national program.  Thanks to Errol Arkilic, Don Millard, Babu Dasgupta, Anita LaSalle (as well as current program leaders Lydia McClure, Steven Konsek) and the over 100 instructors at the 53 universities who teach the program across the U.S.

NSF I-Corps Oct 2011But I haven’t forgotten that before everyone else thought that teaching scientists how to build companies using Lean Methods might be a good for the country, there was one congressman who got it first.  lipinskiIN 2012, Representative Dan Lipinski (D-Il), co-chair of the House STEM Education Caucus, got on an airplane and flew to Stanford to see the class first-hand.

For the first few years Lipinski was a lonely voice in Congress saying that we’ve found a better way to train our scientists to create companies and jobs.

This bill is a reauthorization of the 2010 America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science (COMPETES) Act, which set out policies that govern the NSF, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and federal programs on innovation, manufacturing, and science and math education. Reauthorization bills don’t fund an agency, but they provide policy guidance.  It resolved partisan differences over how NSF should conduct peer review and manage research.

I-Corps is the  accelerator that helps scientists bridge the commercialization gap between their research in their labs and wide-scale commercial adoption and use.

Why This Matters
While a few of the I-Corps teams are in web/mobile/cloud, most are working on advanced technology projects that don’t make TechCrunch. You’re more likely to see their papers (in material science, robotics, diagnostics, medical devices, computer hardware, etc.) in Science or Nature.

I-Corps uses everything we know about building Lean Startups and Evidence-based Entrepreneurship to connect innovation to entrepreneurship. It’s curriculum is built on a framework of business model design, customer development and agile engineering – and its emphasis on evidence, Lessons Learned versus demos, makes it the worlds most advanced accelerator. It’s success is measured not only by the technologies that leave the labs, but how many U.S. scientists and engineers we train as entrepreneurs and how many of them pass on their knowledge to students. I-Corps is our secret weapon to integrate American innovation and entrepreneurship into every U.S. university lab.

Every time I go to Washington and spend time at the National Science Foundation or National Institute of Health I’m reminded why the U.S. leads the world in support of basic and applied science.  It’s not just the money we pour into these programs (~$125 billion/year), but the people who have dedicated themselves to make the world a better place by advancing science and technology for the common good.

Congratulations to everyone in making the Innovation Corps a national standard.

10 Responses

  1. Thanks for sharing this Steve. As one who prefers to turn off the ” fake” news and other non-productive energy wasting media, it is wonderful to have some good news about bi-partisan individuals working together to accomplish real change on innovation. I admire the persistence and commitment to get real results. Well done!

  2. ANY bipartisan initiative is such a breath of fresh air. Thanks Steve. Could we apply the tools of innovation to the challenge of getting yet more bipartisan initiatives?

  3. Having gone through this program and being a recipient of the NSF I-Corps award, I can tell, with conviction that this process works! I started teaching shortly afterwards and I have been incorporating methods from this program from the get-go! Great to see it getting the recognition that it richly deserves!

  4. This program allow the United States to better harness the outstanding innovations coming from our Federal and University researchers. The difference in the US and other world economies over time has been our ability to commercialize innovation. And as Steve Blank would say, “that’s a big idea”.

  5. Congratulations, Steve! Innovation is the most important part of any field.

    There is one thing I would like to point out, however, that is typically overlooked. Innovation by boomers and seniors.

    We always hear iterations of the idea that some child born in a third world today might hold the key to curing cancer or solving other world problems. But what if that person is a 72 year old retiree who is working off their kitchen table to solve the same problem – assisted by decades of accumulated knowledge in different fields? Will anyone really take notice – or believe them – when they find the cure or solution?

    I was a very successful television writer when I was young. But like many women, motherhood sidetracked my career and forced me to reinvent myself. My “placeholder” jobs included teaching at the university level and becoming associate publisher of a very successful niche market magazine. But when my kids were old enough and I tried to return to my screenwriting career, all of the doors were blocked because of my age. So, I looked around for something else that interested me and wound up focusing on technology. Long after my 50th birthday, I won five hackathons and designed a mobile platform for professionally scripted entertainment. I received my first US Patent in technology – full utility – at the age of 58. My third patent was awarded this past year, when I was 61. I still face the insane prejudice of ageism – which makes no sense in a field where accumulated knowledge is an asset to innovation – but I keep going because sooner or later somebody smart will open the right door and take a look at what I’ve built.

    I tell you this story to urge you to include the benefits of age in innovation. Students go to Stanford (and other top schools) to learn from instructors who have decades of knowledge and experience beyond their own. They may learn something from working with other bright peers – but all of that is done under the guidance of some of the smartest older instructors on the planet. Consequently, when it comes to innovation, it’s not about either/or millennials or boomers. It’s about the full inclusion and cooperation of all age groups and genders.

    Please consider that as you continue your work.

  6. A wonderful piece of news Steve, thanks for sharing and congrats.

  7. Hi Steve,

    Happy New Year and hope 2017 will be a great year for you and your family.

    Congratulation for the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act which is based on NSF I-Corp which you and your colleague at NSF originated. Your 1st blog on NSF I-Corp, July 28th, 2011 “Eureka! A New Era for Scientists and Engineers” was translated and published in Japan on November 21st, 2011. I cannot believe the speed and urgency that AICA was born, in just 5 years. I am wishing you will receive the Congressional Gold Medal!

    Cheers, Tak


  8. congratulations. another amazing achievement. i trust you are mightily proud of this one, as you should be… Bob Dorf

  9. This is good! Great news!

  10. The next step is to use evidence based research and agile development to identify and promote academic research projects that benefit ‘we the people’ that fund them, not just for corporations that benefit from bringing new technologies to market.

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