Want to Take Your Ph.D. Further? Think Like an Entrepreneur

In a crowded hotel conference room in downtown Brooklyn, N.Y., in October, Jerry Engel told dozens of earnest young scientists and engineers to cut the “scientific crap” and instead identify would-be customers who might care about their products. Frank Rimalovski piled on, urging attendees presenting research that they wanted to turn into businesses — from bone grafts to facial-recognition software — “to focus on the problem, not the solution.”

The two men were helping teach an introductory workshop in the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps, a seven-week program that trains researchers to figure out if their academic work has commercial potential. Engel, who serves as the program’s national faculty director, and Rimalovski, managing director of New York University’s Innovation Venture Fund, say I-Corps is a departure from traditional entrepreneurship instruction, which emphasizes business plans and financial projections. The teams spend at least 15 hours a week meeting with potential customers to determine if a market exists for their products. Once a technology shows promise, its creators try to “move it to the marketplace” rather than let it sit “on shelves collecting dust,” says Rathindra DasGupta, the program’s overseer at the NSF.

To apply, a student researcher must form a three-person team including a mentor. Each team that makes the cut gets a $50,000 grant to pay for expenses. Participants spend time during the program refining their product, taking classes online, meeting with would-be customers and potential partners, and briefing the larger group on their progress.

I-Corps, which was started in 2011, is modeled on serial entrepreneur Steve Blank’s popular Lean LaunchPad class at Stanford University. The NSF, a federal agency with a $7 billion budget that makes research grants to thousands of academics annually, is using the program as an inexpensive way to boost the return on its investments. “The reality is the stuff that comes out of academic institutions is very raw” and often unappealing to industry and venture capitalists, says Errol Arkilic, a former NSF program director who approached Blank about adapting his curriculum for the federal government.

More than 230 teams from at least 100 schools, including Virginia Tech, Georgia Institute of Technology and George Washington University, have completed the I-Corps program. Participants at the October workshop in Brooklyn included faculty members and students from the University of Michigan, Rutgers University and Temple University.

I-Corps alum Jason Gu says the session he attended in fall 2011 helped make him customer-focused. Gu, who holds a materials science Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon University, is the co-founder of SenSevere, a four-employee company in Pittsburgh that makes industrial sensors. As an academic, “what gets really beaten into you is the idea that the end goal is novelty and good scientific progress,” Gu says. Now the objective is “to get [our] sensors out there and into real plants.” The 29-year-old counts the Environmental Protection Agency, the Electric Power Research Institute and a large distribution business for the chlorine industry among his clients.

Congress authorized $12.25 million for the NSF to administer the program for the year ended Sept. 30, up from $7.5 million for the previous fiscal year, and Representative Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) says he is drafting legislation that will support it in future years. “I’m very hopeful I-Corps will continue, and continue to expand,” he says. “It’s a very smart way” to see “more of the research being conducted wind up turning into American jobs.”

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