Getting Ph.D.s to Think Like Entrepreneurs; Hundreds of scientists have participated in business boot camps sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

Getting Ph.D.s to Think Like Entrepreneurs

By Nick Leiber October 24, 2013

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,” says Gu. 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.”

The bottom line: Hundreds of scientists have participated in business boot camps sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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