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.

So Here’s What I’ve Been Thinking…

I was interviewed at the Stanford Business School and in listening to the podcast, I realize I repeated some of my usual soundbites but embedded in the conversation were a few things I’ve never shared before about service.

Listen here:

Steve Blank on Silicon Valley, AI and the Future of Innovation

Download the .mp3 here:

Download Episode

Doubling Down On a Good Thing: The National Science Foundation’s I-Corps Lite

I’ve known Edmund Pendleton from the University of Maryland as the Director of the D.C. National Science Foundation (NSF) I-Corps Node (a collaboration among the University of Maryland, Virginia Tech, George Washington, and Johns Hopkins). edmund pendeltonBut it wasn’t until seeing him lead the first I-Corps class at the National Institutes of Health that I realized Edmund could teach my class better than I can.

After seeing the results of 500+ teams through the I-Corps, the NSF now offers all teams who’ve received government funding to start a company an introduction to building a Lean Startup.

Here’s Edmund’s description of the I-Corps Lite program.

SBIR/STTR Program and Startup Seed Funding
The Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs are startup seed funds created by Congress to encourage U.S. small businesses to turn Government-funded research into commercial businesses. Eleven U.S. agencies participate in the SBIR/STTR program, with DOD, HHS (NIH), NSF, DOE, and NASA offering the majority of funding opportunities.SBIR and STTR program

The SBIR/STTR program made ~6,200 seed stage investments in 2014, dwarfing the seed investments made by venture capital. seed stage investmentThe SBIR/STTR program represents a critical source of seed funding for U.S. startups that don’t fit whatever’s hot in venture capital. In fact, half of all seed stages in tech companies in the U.S. were funded by the SBIR program.

The SBIR/STTR program
The SBIR/STTR program funds companies in three phases. Phase I funding is for teams to prove feasibility, both technical and commercial.

Since most of the founders come from strong technical roots, companies in Phase I tend to focus on the technology – and spend very little time understanding what it takes to turn the company’s technology into a scalable and repeatable commercial business.

SBIR PhasesIn 2011 the National Science Foundation recognized that many of the innovators they were funding were failing – not from an inability to make their technologies work – but because they did not understand how to translate the technology into a successful business. To address this problem, the NSF collaborated with Steve Blank to adapt his Lean LaunchPad class at Stanford for NSF-funded founders. By focusing on hypothesis testing, the Lean LaunchPad had actually developed something akin to the scientific method for entrepreneurship. (see here, here and the results here.) This was an approach that would immediately make sense to the scientists and technologists NSF was funding. Steve and the NSF collaborated on adapting his curriculum and the result was the 9-week NSF I-Corps program.

NSF’s original I-Corps program was specifically designed for academic innovators still in the lab; fundamentally, to help them determine the best path to commercialization before they moved to the start-up stage. (I-Corps participants are at the “pre-company” stage.) But NSF realized the Lean LaunchPad approach would be equally beneficial for the many startups they fund through the SBIR/STTR program.Icorps plus SBIR

The “Beat the Odds” Bootcamp – an I-Corps “Lite”
The good news is that the NSF found that the I-Corps program works spectacularly well. But the class requires a substantial time commitment for the founding team to get out of the building and talk to 10-15 customers a week, and then present what they learned – the class is essentially a full time commitment.

Was there a way to expose every one of ~240 companies/year who receive a NSF grant to the I-Corps? The NSF decided to pilot a “Beat the Odds Boot Camp” (essentially an I-Corps Lite) at the biannual gathering of new SBIR/STTR Phase I grantees in Washington.

Steve provided an overview of the Lean LaunchPad methodology in an introductory webinar. Then the companies were sent off to do customer discovery before coming to an optional “bootcamp workshop” 12 weeks later. Four certified I-Corps instructors provided feedback to these companies at the workshop. The results of the pilot were excellent. The participating companies learned a significant amount about their business models, even in this very light-touch approach. The NSF SBIR/STTR program had found a way to improve the odds of building a successful company.Icorps lite plus sbir

During the past two years, I’ve taken the lead to expand and head up this program, building on what Steve started. We now require the participating companies to attend kick-off and mid-point webinars, and to conduct 30 customer interviews over the twelve-week program. The companies present to I-Corps instructors at a “Beat the Odds Bootcamp” – the day before the biannual NSF Phase I Grantee Workshop.

In March we conducted our fourth iteration of this workshop with a record number of companies participating (about 110 of 120, or 90%) and 14 certified I-Corps instructors giving feedback to teams. This time, we added afternoon one-on-one sessions with the teams in addition to group presentations in the morning. Companies are very happy with the program, and many have requested even more face time with I-Corps instructors throughout the process.

The smart companies in Phase I realize that this Bootcamp program provides a solid foundation for success in Phase II, when more dollars are available.

What’s Next
Currently, once these teams leave I-Corps Lite, they do not have any “formal” touch points with their instructors. Over time, we hope to offer more services to the teams and develop a version of I-Corps (I-Corps-Next?) for Phase II grantees.

We envision even greater startup successes if SBIR/STTR funded teams can take advantage of I-Corps classes through their entire life cycle:

  • “Pre-company” academic researchers – current I-Corps
  • Phase I SBIR/STTR teams – current I-Corps Lite
  • Phase II SBIR/STTR teams – develop a new I-Corps Next class

Icorps next plus SBIR ii and iii

The emphasis and format would change for each, but all would be solidly rooted in the Lean LaunchPad methodology. And of course, we don’t want to stop with only NSF teams/companies…as we all know. The opportunity is huge, and we can have a significant impact on the country’s innovation ecosystem.

NSF led the development of the SBIR program in the late 1970s. It has since been adopted by the entire federal research community. We believe NSF’s leadership with I-Corps will deliver something of equal significance… a program that teaches scientists and engineers what it takes to turn those research projects into products and services for the benefit of society.  I-Corps Lite is one more piece of that program.

Lessons Learned

  • The SBIR/STTR program is a critical source of seed funding for technology startups that don’t fit the “whatever’s hot” category for venture capital
  • The program is a national treasure and envied around the world, but we can (and should) improve it.
  • SBIR/STTR Phase I applicants needed more help with “commercial feasibility”…a perfect fit for business model design, customer discovery and agile engineering – so we rolled out the NSF I-Corps
  • The I-Corps was so successful we wanted more NSF funded entrepreneneurs, not just a select few, to be exposed to the Lean methodology – so we built I-Corps Lite

Blowing up the Business Plan at U.C. Berkeley Haas Business School

During the Cold War with the Soviet Union, science and engineering at both Stanford and U.C. Berkeley were heavily funded to develop Cold War weapon systems. Stanford’s focus was Electronic Intelligence and those advanced microwave components and systems were useful in a variety of weapons systems. Starting in the 1950’s, Stanford’s engineering department became “outward facing” and developed a culture of spinouts and active faculty support and participation in the first wave of Silicon Valley startups.

At the same time Berkeley was also developing Cold War weapons systems. However its focus was nuclear weapons – not something you wanted to be spinning out. nuclearSo Berkeley started a half century history of “inward facing innovation” focused on the Lawrence Livermore nuclear weapons lab. (See the presentation here.)

Given its inward focus, Berkeley has always been the neglected sibling in Silicon Valley entrepreneurship. That has changed in the last few years.

Today the U.C. Berkeley Haas Business School is a leader in entrepreneurship education. It has replaced how to write a business plan with hands-on Lean Startup methods. It’s teaching the LaunchPad® and the I-Corps for the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health, as well as corporate entrepreneurship courses.haas logo

Here’s the story from Andre Marquis, Executive Director of Berkeley’s Lester Center for Entrepreneurship.


When I came to U.C. Berkeley in 2010 to run the Lester Center for Entrepreneurship in the Haas School of Business we were teaching entrepreneurship the same way as when I was a student back in 1995. Our core MBA class used the seminal textbook New Venture Creation by Jeffrey Timmons of Babson College that was first published in 1977. The final deliverable for that class was a 30-page business plan. We had multiple business plan competitions. As I looked around at other schools, I saw pretty much the same landscape – business plan classes, business plan competitions and loosely coupled accelerators that focused primarily on mentoring.

Over my career as a serial entrepreneur I observed that since the late 1990s, no early-stage Silicon Valley investor had used business plans to screen investments. Even those who asked for them never read them. Traction and evidence from customers were what investors were looking for – even in “slow” sectors like healthcare and energy. There had been tectonic shifts in the startup world, but our business school curriculum had barely moved.

There was a big gap in our educational paradigm. To create great entrepreneurs, we had to give our students the experience of navigating the chaos and uncertainty of running a lean startup while providing the same kind of rigorous framework the business plan did in its day. The advantage of following New Venture Creation is that it had a deep pedagogical infrastructure that students took away after they left school. The disadvantage is that its methodology was based on the old waterfall model of product development and not the agile and lean methods that startups use today.

As I began my search to increase the relevance of our entrepreneurship curriculum with the same rigor as Timmons and New Venture Creation, I found the answer right here at Berkeley, in Steve Blank’s Lean LaunchPad class.

(Our founding Executive Director Jerry Engel, recently retired to become dean of faculty for the National Science Foundation I-Corps, had a tradition of incorporating leading practioners, like Steve. These ‘pracademics’ proved to be some of the biggest innovators in entrepreneurship education.)

Seeing Is Believing
The Lean LaunchPad class was completely different from a traditional entrepreneurship class. It taught lean theory (business model design, customer development and agile engineering) and practice.

Every week, each student team stood in front of the class and presented their business model hypotheses, what they had learned from talking to customers, demo’d their minimal viable products and had to explain what they were going to do next. Steve and the venture capitalists at the back of the room relentlessly peppered them with questions and pushed them to get out of the building and call on the real decision-makers instead of talking to people they already knew. Some teams stepped down from the podium proud that they had made real progress that week while others were chastised because they stuck to their comfort zone, were not doing the tough work required by entrepreneurs and on the road to failure.

I realized this class was teaching students exactly what it felt like to be an entrepreneur! Great entrepreneurs are on a search for the truth, no matter how wrong their initial conception is. Being an entrepreneur is about starting out with no idea whether you are working on the next big thing or something no one wants and certainly no one will pay for. It’s struggling to find the right path forward through chaos and uncertainty. Killing bad ideas quickly and moving on. Staring at the phone while mentally wrestling to pick it up to make that next cold call. It’s having investors tell you that you’re dead wrong and, perhaps with enough customer traction, showing them the path to a new future neither of you could see at the time.

And there it was. The Lean LaunchPad was unlike any class I’d ever seen.

As a Silicon Valley entrepreneur I had lived the lean approach, yet I had never seen it taught. Done informally as part of an accelerator, yes, but not with a framework based on a clear process and clear pedagogy. The Lean LaunchPad was teaching students concepts and a process that they took away from the class and could use again for their next startup. I realized I was looking at a paradigm shift in entrepreneurial education – away from the business plan-focused model to a Lean Startup model. (The irony is that once you’ve gone through the lean cycle, you have all the information that goes in a business plan: customers, sales strategy, product features, and financial metrics. It’s just that they are validated instead of made up.)

The Business Plan is Dead
Now, 4 years after I arrived at BerkeleyHaas, we don’t teach business plan writing in any of our entrepreneurship classes or in any of our dozens of programs and competitions. We use Customer Development and the Lean LaunchPad to train and accelerate teams U.C. Berkeley-wide.

We’ve gone global as well. In the past year alone, we’ve taught over 250 teams, over 1,000 entrepreneurs and their mentors in dozens of countries how to create scalable startups in domains from software and hardware to healthcare and energy.

Haas global footprint

Haas global footprint

The international teams watch the lectures online, get out of the building, present to us each week via WebEx and get the same brand of relentless and direct feedback their U.C. Berkeley peers got in Steve’s class. For example, our Intel Technology To Market Accelerator took 22 teams from 11 countries across 15 time zones, from northern Russia to southern Chile and from Saudi Arabia to the U.S. (Chicago) through the Lean LaunchPad process. Clearly, lean works globally.

And we’ve been part of the U.S. effort to use the Lean LaunchPad to accelerate commercialization for the country’s best research spinouts from the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health. We do this by running classes for the NSF Innovation Corps and The I-Corps at the NIH. And the same lean techniques work just as well in the corporate innovation programs we run such as the Intel Make It Wearable Challenge.

An important distinction is that these programs are accelerators. The teams in them start with an idea or product, meet with customers, build prototypes and search for a scalable business model. All declare their startup a “go” or “no go” at the end. They learn it’s all about building to scale, pivoting or declaring failure, and moving on using a hypothesis-driven search for the truth.

Even our venerable 15-year old business plan competition, once dubbed “bplan,” has transformed into LAUNCH, a multi-month accelerator with a rigorous process combining the Lean LaunchPad, agile product development and a focus on measurable Lean Analytics. Ironically, LAUNCH has turned out to be much more rigorous than the prior business plan competition because we immerse every entrepreneur and their mentors in conquering the chaos and uncertainty that is normal for startups. We expect them to come out with specific knowledge of their markets and business ecosystem, verified metrics, a product and a plan for moving forward based on interacting with their actual customers – not honing the teams for a beauty pageant-like pitch fest or making them produce a business plan that’s fundamentally speculative. As educators, we are having a deep impact on these entrepreneurs and their startups.

Lean LaunchPad Works Across Industries
I often hear the concern that the Lean LaunchPad only works for software. After 700 teams in robotics, materials, hardware, therapeutics, diagnostics, medical devices, and enterprise software, it’s clear that Lean Startup methods work across all industries. We’ve taught versions of the Lean LaunchPad for life sciences at UCSF and as part of the National Institutes of Health, for hardware-focused startups making wearable devices as part of the Intel Make It Wearable Challenge, for teams working on nanotechnology and in education (STEMKids and Build and Imagine). Two of our BerkeleyHaas Faculty, Jorge Calderon and Will Rosenzweig, created a Social Lean LaunchPad class that embraces the mission and stakeholders central to social ventures.

Whether it’s making iPhone apps or medical devices, every startup is looking for a repeatable and scalable business model. Focusing on finding customer needs, figuring out how they buy and how to scale up product delivery are universal.

Where We Are Going From Here
At U.C. Berkeley we’ve undergone a complete transformation in just four years. But the longer journey is to continue to build new lean-tools and classes separate from the 40 year-old, business plan-based tradition.

We continue to ask ourselves, “What can we do to get our students out of the classroom, in cross-functional teams, building for specific customers and having the experience of making hard decisions under conditions of uncertainty? What can we do to expand and deepen the rigor of the Lean Startup methodologies and fully elaborate our curriculum?”

At BerkeleyHaas we are sharing what we are learning (see below). By embracing lean, you can be assured you will be giving your students essential innovation skills they will use for the rest of their lives. You will see great startups focused on solving real customer problems emerge as well. This is an exciting journey and we are all right at the start.

Some resources for shifting the paradigm in your organization:

Lessons Learned

  • Early-stage investors don’t read business plans
  • We are in the middle of a shift in entrepreneurship education from teaching the waterfall model of startup development (enshrined in business plans) to teaching the lean startup model
  • The Lean LaunchPad process works across a wide range of domains – from science and engineering to healthcare, energy, government, the social sector and for corporate innovation
  • Customer Development works outside Silicon Valley. In fact, it works globally
  • The Lean LaunchPad is a business process that teaches entrepreneurs and innovators to make business-focused, evidence-based decisions under conditions of chaos and uncertainty. It’s a big idea

I-Corps at the NIH: Evidence-based Translational Medicine

If you’ve received this post in an email the embedded videos and powerpoint are best viewed on

We have learned a remarkable process that allow us to be highly focused, and we have learned a tool of trade we can now repeat. This has been of tremendous value to us.

Andrew Norris, Principal Investigator BCN Biosciences

Over the last three years the National Science Foundation I-Corps has taught over 700 teams of scientists how to commercialize their technology and how to fail less, increasing their odds for commercial success.

To see if this same curriculum would work for therapeutics, diagnostics, medical devices and digital health, we taught 26 teams at UCSF a life science version of the NSF curriculum. 110 researchers and clinicians, and Principal Investigators got out of the lab and hospital, and talked to 2,355 customers. (Details here)

For the last 10 weeks 19 teams in therapeutics, diagnostics and medical devices from the National Institutes of Health (from four of the largest institutes; NCINHBLI, NINDS, and NCATS) have gone through the I-Corps at NIH.

87 researchers and clinicians spoke to 2,120 customers, tested 695 hypotheses and pivoted 215 times. Every team spoke to over 100 customers.

Three Big Questions
The NIH teams weren’t just teams with ideas, they were fully formed companies with CEO’s and Principal Investigators who already had received a $150,000 grant from the NIH. With that SBIR-Phase 1 funding the teams were trying to establish the technical merit, feasibility, and commercial potential of their technology. Many will apply for a Phase II grant of up to $1 million to continue their R&D efforts.

Going into the class we had three questions:

  1. Could companies who were already pursuing a business model be convinced to revisit their key commercialization hypotheses – and iterate and pivot if needed?
  2. Was getting the Principal Investigators and CEO out of the building more effective than the traditional NIH model of bringing in outside consultants to do commercialization planning?
  3. Would our style of being relentlessly direct with senior scientists, who hadn’t had their work questioned in this fashion since their PhD orals, work with the NIH teams?

Evidence-based Translational Medicine
We’ve learned that information from 100 customers is just at the edge of having sufficient data to validate/invalidate a company’s business model hypotheses. As for whether you can/should push scientists past their comfort zone, the evidence is clear – there is no other program that gets teams anywhere close to talking to 100 customers. The reason? For entrepreneurs to get out of the building at this speed and scale is an unnatural act. It’s hard, there are lots of other demands on their time, etc. But we push and cajole hard, (our phrase is we’re relentlessly direct,) knowing that while they might find it uncomfortable the first three days of the class, they come out thanking us.

The experience is demanding but time and again we have seen I-Corps teams transform their business assumptions. This direct interaction with potential users and customers is essential to commercialize science (whether to license the technology or launch a startup.) This process can’t be outsourced. These teams saved years and millions of dollars for themselves, the NIH and the U.S. taxpayer. Evidence is now in-hand that with I-Corps@NIH the NIH has the most effective program for commercializing science.

Lessons Learned Day
Every week of this 10 week class, teams present a summary of what they learned from their customers interviews. For the final presentation each team created a two minute video about their 10-week journey and a 8-minute PowerPoint presentation to tell us where they started, what they learned, how they learned it, and where they’re going. This “Lessons Learned” presentation is much different than a traditional demo day. It gives us a sense of the learning, velocity and trajectory of the teams, rather than a demo day showing us how smart they are at a single point in time.

BCN Biosciences
This video from team BCN Biosciences describes what the intensity, urgency, velocity and trajectory of an I-Corps team felt like. Like a startup it’s relentless.

BCN is developing a drug that increases anti-cancer effect of radiation in lung cancer (and/or reduces normal tissue damage by at least 40%). They were certain their customers were Radiation Oncologists, that MOA data was needed, that they needed to have Phase 1 trial data to license their product, and needed >$5 million and 6 years. After 10 weeks and 100 interviews, they learned that these hypotheses were wrong.

If you can’t see the BCN Biosciences video click here

The I-Corps experience helped the BCN Bioscience team develop an entirely new set set of business model hypotheses – this time validated by customers and partners. The “money slides” for BCN Biosciences are slides 22 and 23.

If you can’t see the BCN Biosciences presentation click here

You Can’t Outsource Customer Discovery
What we hear time and again from the Principal Investigators is “I never would have known this” or “I wouldn’t have understood it if I hadn’t heard it myself.” Up until now the NIH model of commercialization treated a Principal Investigator as someone who can’t be bothered to get out of the building (let alone insist that it’s part of their job in commercialization.) In the 21st century using proxies to get out of the building is like using barbers as surgeons.

While the Clinacuity video sounds like an ad for customer discovery, listen to what they said then look at their slides. This team really learned outside the building.

If you can’t see the Clinacuity video click here

Clinacuity’s technology automatically extracts data in real-time from clinical notes, (the narrative text documents in a Electronic Health Record,) and provides a summary in real time. Their diagrams of the healthcare customer segment in slides 15-18 were outstanding.

If you can’t see the Clinacuity presentation click here

The GigaGen team – making recombinant gamma globulin – holds the record for customer discovery – 163 customer interviews on multiple continents.

If you can’t see the GigaGen video click here

GigaGen’s learning on customer value proposition and who were the real stakeholders was a revelation. Their next-to-last slide on Activities, Resouces and Partners put the pieces together.

If you can’t see the GigaGen presentation click here

Affinity Therapeutics
Affinity came into class with a drug coated Arterial Venous Graft – graft narrowing is a big problem.

One of things we tell all the teams is that we’re not going to critique their clinical or biological hypotheses. Yet we know that by getting out of the building their interaction with customers might do just that. That’s what happened to Affinity.

If you can’t see the Affinity video click here

Affinity was a great example of a team that pivoted their MVP. They realized they might have a completely new product – Vascular wraps that can reduce graft infection.  See slides 17-23.

If you can’t see the Affinity presentation click here

Haro is making a drug for the treatment of high risk neuroblastoma, the most common extracranial cancer in infancy and childhood. On day 1 of the class I told the team, “Your presentation is different from the others – and not in a good way.”  That’s not how I described them in the final presentation.

If you can’t see the Haro video click here

After 120 interviews the Haro found that there are oncology organizations (NCI-funded clinical development partners) that will take Haro’s compound and develop it at their own expense and take it all the way into the clinic. This will save Haro tens of millions of dollars in development cost.  See slides 12 and 13.

If you can’t see the Haro presentation click here

Caridax is developing a neural stimulator to treat atrial fibrillation. Their video points out some of the common pitfalls in customer discovery. Great summary from Mark Bates, the Principal Investigator: “You don’t know what you don’t know. Scientific discovery is different than innovation. You as a prospective entrepreneur need this type of systematic vetting and analysis to know the difference.”

If you can’t see the Cardiax video click here

After 80 interviews they realized they were jumping to conclusions and imparting their bias into the process. Take a look at slides 8-11 and see their course correction.

If you can’t see the Cardiax presentation click here

The other 15 presentations were equally impressive. Each and every team stood up and delivered. And in ways that surprised themselves.

The Lean Startup approach (hypotheses testing outside the building,) was the first time clinicians and researchers understood that talking to customers didn’t require sales, marketing or an MBA – that they themselves could do a pretty good first pass. I-Corps at NIH just gave us more evidence that’s true.

The team videos and slides are on SlideShare here.

A Team Effort
This blog post may make it sound like there was no one else in the room but me and the teams. But nothing could be farther from the truth. The I-Corps@NIH teaching team was led by Edmund Pendleton. Allan May/Jonathan Fay taught medical devices, John Blaho/Bob Storey taught diagnostics and Karl Handelsman/Keith McGreggor taught therapeutics. Andre Marquis, Frank Rimalovski and Dean Chang provided additional expertise. Brandy Nagel was our tireless teaching assistant. Jerry Engel is the NSF I-Corps faculty director.

Special thanks to Paul Yock of Stanford Biodesign and Alexander Osterwalder for flying across the country/world to be part of the teaching team.

I created the I-Corps/Lean LaunchPad® syllabus/curriculum, and with guidance from Allan May, Karl Handelsman Abhas Gupta and Todd Morrill adapted it for Life Sciences/Health Care/Digital Health. The team from VentureWell provided the logistical support. The I-Corps program is run by the National Science Foundation (Babu Dasgupta, Don Millard and Anita LaSalle.) And of course none of this would be possible without the tremendous and enthusiastic support and encouragement of Michael Weingarten the director of the NIH/NCI SBIR program and his team.

Lessons Learned

  • The I-Corps/Lean LaunchPad curriculum works for therapeutics, diagnostics and device teams
  • Talking to 100 customers not only affected teams’ commercial hypotheses but also their biological and clinical assumptions
  • These teams saved years and millions of dollars for themselves, the NIH and the U.S. taxpayer
  • Evidence is now in-hand that the NIH has the most effective program for commercializing science
  • In the 21st century using proxies to get out of the building is like using barbers as surgeons

The Big Bang. The Lean LaunchPad explodes at University of Maryland

The University of Maryland is now integrating the Lean LaunchPad® into standard innovation and entrepreneurship courses across all 12 colleges within the University. Over 44 classes have embedded the business model canvas and/or Customer Discovery including a year-long course taken by every single one of its bioengineering majors.big bang 2

It’s made a big bang.

Here’s the story from Dean Chang, UMD’s Associate Vice President for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.


Two decades ago, Steve Blank completely changed the course and fortunes of a Stanford spinout startup called Immersion. I was lucky to be one of the very early people at Immersion and met Steve when he came on as one of our first board members. It was Steve who first brought Will Harvey to visit Immersion, which led to a strategic investment in, Will’s stealth-mode but sure-fire, can’t-miss startup.

Present at the Creation
We didn’t know it at the time, but with that investment we had paid for front-row VIP seats to witness the origins of Customer Development and the Lean Startup. is where Will first met and hired Eric Ries and had the painful and formative experiences that directly led to them starting over and co-founding IMVU while auditing Steve’s Lean LaunchPad course. With Eric Ries as the first practioner of Customer Development, Steve wrote Four Steps to the Epiphany, Eric wrote Lean Startup, and – BANG – Customer Development and Lean Startup were born!

Twenty years and 100,000’s of copies of those books later, my life has fortuitously intersected with Steve Blank once again now that we’ve both become educators. In my second go-around with Steve Blank, he’s still changing the course and fortunes of startups everywhere, but perhaps more profoundly, he’s now also changing the course of universities and students everywhere as a result of a program he developed with the National Science Foundation (NSF).

It’s a Capitol Idea
The DC, Maryland, and Virginia (DMV) region represents the most fertile science and technology region in the country with about $30 billion in federally-funded R&D. However, the region has historically underperformed in translating its enormous R&D output into impact.

When Steve and NSF created the I-Corps™ program in 2011, I approached Edmund Pendleton from University of Maryland, Jim Chung from George Washington University and Jack Lesko from Virginia Tech with the idea that together we could leverage the respective strengths of our institutions, and catalyze the region through I-Corps. In 2012, we applied for and then were awarded a grant from NSF to do just that. We created the DC I-Corps Regional Node to teach the Lean LaunchPad curriculum to top scientists, innovators, and students from around the 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 DC I-Corps node’s addition of the #1 research university in the country (Johns Hopkins) in 2014.

UMD LLP Ecosystem

Teaching the Big Bang to Undergraduates
University of Maryland’s President Wallace Loh’s commitment to engage every student in all 12 colleges in innovation and entrepreneurship resulted in UMD aggressively leveraging its I-Corps and Lean LaunchPad experience inside undergraduate classrooms.

Our FedTech class pairs students with some of the most promising technologies from NASA, DOD and several other of the 87 federal labs located in the DMV region. Federal labs like DOE literally have tens of thousands of inventions that they’d like to have vetted for commercial potential, so FedTech students search for a repeatable and scalable business model for those fed lab technologies using the Lean LaunchPad framework. Students get course credit, a fantastic learning experience, and in some cases, even a job offer or career opportunity with the federal lab or with an industry contact made during interviews.

Elements of the business model canvas and/or discovery-based interviews of stakeholders have already been incorporated into 44 other classes at UMD. But the biggest impact of 2014 has been from incorporating the Lean LaunchPad curriculum into our signature, year-long senior capstone course in bioengineering. This means that every single University of Maryland student in the Fischell Department of Bioengineering is now required to not only design a real biomedical device but also take that design through rigorous, evidence-based Customer Development in order to graduate. 

Truth be told, we took a page out of Frank Rimalovski’s playbook at NYU and paid for Yang Tao to attend the Lean LaunchPad Educators Program.  He’s the professor who teaches the bioengineering capstone course, and he returned from Steve’s ranch inspired and determined to weave the Lean LaunchPad into the fabric of the capstone course. So what’s happened so far?

Impact of the Big Bang on University of Maryland Bioengineering
In this capstone course students visit the University of Maryland medical school and shadow doctors, nurses, and other hospital workers to learn about problems and needs, which is an ideal set up for customer interviews and discovery. They spend the year working with the doctors and the life sciences venture community to design devices and other solutions to those problems and needs.

Before Lean LaunchPad was added to the bioengineering capstone class, some beautiful devices were designed and manufactured with many students never knowing whether the value proposition for what they made was beneficial enough to all the right people to warrant adoption or if the customer segment they targeted was the right one and made financial sense.

Now the students spend time in customer discovery and learn why validating the business model for their device is so important. As they target the different parts of the canvas, they begin to understand how things like improved healthcare, purchasing, reimbursement, and regulatory must fit into a successful business model.

Some students will find that their device is an engineering marvel but would never fly in the market for reasons they weren’t even aware of until they did their “outside of the classroom” customer interviews. Co-instructor Martha Connolly thinks that’s a perfectly good outcome because they’ve still learned the process of designing and making a biomedical device but they’ve also learned equally valuable lessons from the Lean LaunchPad process that will be applicable in any future endeavors, whatever they may be.

The real proof of Lean LaunchPad’s impact is that the students are clamoring for it.

Can I Have More?
In fact, two UMD bioengineering students, Shawn Greenspan and Stephanie Cohen, went through the capstone course last year before Lean LaunchPad was integrated. They were so upset that they missed out on the Lean LaunchPad version of the course that they teamed up with Dr. Ron Samet, a very entrepreneurial professor of anesthesiology from the medical school, to take the class through this fall’s National Science Foundation I-Corps regional program taught in the D.C. area.

UMDAccording to Shawn and Stephanie, I-Corps taught them what they didn’t get from the traditional capstone course without Lean LaunchPad:

“I-Corps finally put us on the road to real customer discovery. Our initial business plan started with an incorrectly identified buyer, value propositions that were wrong, and guesses everywhere else. Fortunately after 67 interviews we now have a fully developed customer segment identifying each customer type, the key value propositions, and a developing revenue model.

We still have lots of work to do. The left side of our canvas has more questions than answers. Five weeks ago, that was scary to admit, but now we know where our answers lie: outside the building.”

This kind of feedback from students is particularly gratifying. Not only did the experience have the kind of impact we had hoped for, but it’s also turned into a potential career opportunity for Shawn and Stephanie as they’re completing their master’s programs.

What’s Next?
Four more Lean LaunchPad initiatives are either on tap or about to be scaled up:

Being a node instructor in the I-Corps @ NIH program has allowed me to work with some terrific experts in life sciences and healthcare ventures and spread that expertise to DC I-Corps and UMD programs. Next month, I’ll be a node instructor in NSF’s upcoming I-Corps for Learning program where we aim to teach STEM educators how to scale their teaching innovations to a wider audience. That experience should again result in great learnings to bring back and apply at UMD.

When I witnessed the Big Bang origins of Customer Development and Lean Startup 20 years ago during my first encounter with Steve Blank, I could not have guessed how fast it would impact the startup world, and now universities and students. If the past is prologue, the future is going to be fantastic!

Lessons Learned

  • University of Maryland has gone “all in” with the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps and discovery-based learning from stakeholders
  • I-Corps has been a great investment for the country. Regardless if they take startup path, students gain invaluable skills
  • Elective courses are great, but the big win comes from embedding Lean LaunchPad in existing required courses
  • Students can create job and career opportunities through their customer discovery interactions
  • The impact on life sciences and healthcare is evident in the UMD bioengineering program and in the NIH program
  • The Lean LaunchPad process is equally well-suited to areas like STEM education and government (e.g., fed labs, HHS)

Impact! NYU Scales the Lean LaunchPad

NYU has adopted the Lean LaunchPad® class as a standard entrepreneurship course across twelve different schools/colleges within the University. Over 1,000 students a year are learning lean startup concepts.



In August 2011 I received an email from someone at NYU I never heard of. Frank Rimalovski, the Executive Director of the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute, had just read about the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (I-Corps) in my blog, and he absolutely had to meet me. To Frank’s credit he wouldn’t take no for an answer. When I said, “I’m too busy,” Frank said he’d fly out to fit into my schedule. When I said, “I’m at my ranch on the coast,” Frank promised to drive to Santa Cruz as soon as he get off the plane.

I figured any academic who was as persistent as an entrepreneur had earned my time.

So we met, and I learned a lot. First, I learned that Frank was not your typical academic. He was a career VC, now at NYU and charged with building an entrepreneurial ecosystem across the university. Frank’s goal in the meeting was to figure out how to ensure that NYU would be one of the new universities selected when the National Science Foundation scaled the Innovation Corps nationally. (The Innovation Corps, or I-Corps for short, is my Stanford Lean LaunchPad class offered by the National Science Foundation to our leading scientists. The Lean LaunchPad class teaches students how to build a Lean Startup using business model design, customer development and agile engineering. Teams have to get out of the building and talk to 10-15 customers a week.) I gave Frank the same advice I offered all the other universities who asked. But the difference was that Frank took it and made it part of the NYU proposal.

In 2012 NYU partnered with the City University of NY (CUNY) and Columbia University, and in early 2013 they won a grant from the National Science Foundation to build the Innovation Corps in New York City and jointly create the the NYC Regional Innovation Node (NYCRIN).

Spend it Wisely
As part of the National Science Foundation I-Corps program, NYU was responsible for training our country’s top scientists – and they’ve taught 170 of them so far.

But what NYU did with the rest of their grant dollars was simply brilliant. Over the last two years they used part of the National Science Foundation funds to send eight NYU faculty to California attend the Lean LaunchPad Educators program. (The Educators Program is a 2½ day class that teaches faculty how to create and teach their own Lean LaunchPad class.) In exchange the faculty had to agree to teach a Lean LaunchPad class at NYU within the next year. Unbelievably, they’ve delivered – and more. By this spring there will be 9 different Lean LaunchPad classes with 12 NYU instructors (and several more gearing up) teaching Lean at 12 of the schools/colleges within NYU. Some of these were brand new classes while others adapted existing business, design and engineering curricula to utilize the Lean approach.

NYU Lean 2

Spread it Widely
In two short years, the Lean LaunchPad has had a major impact on teaching entrepreneurship at NYU. Starting this year all 750 incoming freshman at the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering take the required Innovation and Technology Forum class. The class has been updated to cover the key elements of the Lean Startup (customer development, customer segments & value propositions, product/market fit, and minimal viable products)!

In addition, 165 students from twelve different schools/colleges within the University took the full Lean LaunchPad class this year. And in each of the past two summers 10 teams with 30 students participated in the NYU Summer Launchpad accelerator program. Frank even convinced me to come to New York and teach a five-day 10-hour-a-day Lean LaunchPad class with him and his team each August.

Student Impact
While classes offered and curriculums built are impressive, what really matters is whether we had any impact on the students. Did we open new eyes? Encourage new startups? Change lives? To my surprise the impact has been clear and immediate. A few of the students wrote blogs about their experience in the classes.  Here are a a few quotes that stand out:

Tlacael Esparza recently received his masters in music tech from NYU Steinhardt and is the co-founder of Sensory Percussion.  “…I found the idea of doing 10-15 customer interviews a week daunting and distracting. How can I commit to “getting out of the building” when I have so much more work to do building and improving our first product? … However, going through the customer development process showed me the danger in that kind of thinking. In talking to musicians and music producers…there was a lot to be learned about how our competitors’ products are perceived and used and how Sensory Percussion would fit into the current eco-system.” Read Tlacael’s blog post about his Summer Launchpad experience here.

Fang-Ke Huang is a postdoctoral fellow in NYU Langone Medical Center, applying the proteomic approach to understand the brain’s functionalities such as learning and memory.  “(The) class taught me not only the importance of customers, but also the application of the scientific method to the business model...I also learned that an entrepreneur should have a productive attitude towards setbacks. …, I started to view setbacks as a chance for feedback and as opportunities to redirect my efforts.”  Fang-Ke’s blog about the class is here.

Make it Better
Last but not least, Frank thought that neither the Four Steps to the Epiphany nor the Startup Owners Manual had enough specific advice on Customer Development. (Ouch.) I told him that if he thought he could do better he should write his own book. So Frank did. He collaborated with Giff Constable and wrote Talking to Humans: Success Starts with Understanding Your Customers to guide aspiring entrepreneurs through the process of securing, conducting and synthesizing early customer discovery interviews. And you know what? It is a great book. I used it in the I-Corps @ NIH program, and it’s now one of my class texts.

What’s Next?
From my time at NYU last summer, it was clear there is already a growing demand and interest from faculty and administrators alike to apply Lean in life science and healthcare at NYU. Now that the National Institute of Health has run an I-Corps class specifically targeted for Life Science and Healthcare (therapeutics, diagnostics, medical devices and digital health), there’s now a Lean LaunchPad curriculum for Frank’s next target –  bringing the Lean LaunchPad class into the NYU Medical Center in 2015

Lessons Learned

  • The National Science Foundation Innovation Corps has been a great investment for the country
  • It’s spurred a renaissance in entrepreneurial education
  • NYU has grabbed the opportunity with both hands
  • They’ve made one heck of an impact in just two years
  • I can’t wait to see what they do next
%d bloggers like this: