Have you been considering an I-Corps program, but aren’t sure it’s the right fit for you? Maybe you’re concerned about the time commitment, unclear on what concepts will be taught, or not sure you’re far enough along in your research to attend.
We caught up with three I-Corps participants from our latest Great Lakes I-Corps Hub Regional I-Corps cohort to discuss their experiences and answer some of your most frequently asked questions.
First Things First: What is I-Corps?
The NSF-funded Innovation Corps (I-Corps) programs help university-based students, faculty, and researchers bring their innovative research or technology ideas from the lab to the marketplace. Hosted at the local, regional, and national levels, I-Corps programs teach academic scientists and engineers about Lean LaunchPad principles for commercialization, including customer discovery, value proposition, and commercialization pathways.
Meet the Participants
Judee Sharon, STEM Cohort, Graduate Research Assistant and 4th year PhD student at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, studying BioChemistry, Molecular Biology, and BioPhysics. Her research focus is in Synthetic Biology.
Dr. Yan Liu, Agriculture Cohort, Associate Professor at Michigan State University in the Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering.
Matthew Rudd, Agriculture Cohort, Entrepreneur and Mentor-in-Residence at Michigan State University’s Innovation Center.
Question #1: Why did you attend the Regional I-Corps program? What did you hope to gain from participating?
Judee: “I don’t necessarily want to be an entrepreneur just for the sake of entrepreneurship. I want to work on some kind of scientific technology because that is what is intellectually stimulating to me and what has the greatest chance of helping issues affecting us today, like climate change. So, that is one of the reasons why I wanted to do the Regional I-Corps program, because I knew it would help me understand how to start commercializing a product. And, it was a free resource that I think people outside of the university environment pay a lot to get.”
Dr. Liu: “We wanted to know the current market. For me, as a faculty member, I know nothing about the market. I do research. So, now we have the technology and there is a possibility to commercialize, but before we do that commercialization, we need to know the market.”
Matthew: “To better understand the market and the customer segments that we are trying to serve, and also to try to develop a commercialization pathway.”
Question #2: What did you learn? What did you find valuable about the I-Corps program?
Judee: “The number one thing that they were trying to drive home is the importance of doing customer interviews to learn if your product will actually have a foothold in the market. Because, there is no point in creating something that people aren’t interested in. So, in the Regional I-Corps program, and I think in the National program as well, they really want us to do as many customer interviews as possible to try and understand what market we are targeting, what that marketplace looks like in terms of a target customer, where their current needs are being serviced, who our competitors are, and what kind of value does that market hold for your product? And, all of those things were being answered over the 8 weeks as we did more and more interviews. It is one of those things where the more times you have a conversation, the more refined you get about your questions and the more targeted you get about what you are looking for without asking leading questions. I think, above all, the Regional I-Corps programs taught me how to understand the needs of my potential customer.”
Dr. Liu: “We learned a lot, especially me, having no idea about business. Starting from zero, I learned how to develop a business thesis, how to interview people, what kinds of questions you need to ask, and even how to develop a commercialization plan. I think, overall, we reached our goal which was to know the basic idea of the market related to [our idea], and we narrowed down our research. During customer discovery, we changed our initial topic. This gave us a direction for what is next for my research and what we are going to do for commercialization.”
Matthew: “I teach customer discovery at a couple of the engineering courses at MSU, so I was experienced with it. But, I learned a ton from the program. Some of the useful tools were the value proposition canvas section, which really clearly defines the customer segment, the needs, the pains, and the gains. And then looking at our actual value proposition, and looking at the different customer segments individually and developing a value proposition canvas for each one of those customer segments was very helpful. The commercialization pathway document was really useful and we are still using that today.”
Question #3: Why should other university students, faculty, and researchers attend I-Corps?
Judee: “I think in academia we tend to be really siloed in the publication cycle and in running experiments every day. And, even when people file IP, I find that there are a lot of people who are intimidated by the idea of entrepreneurship or even the idea of commercializing. I think the Regional I-Corps program is so great because it is finite – it is only 8 weeks. It is a lot of work but you are learning a lot at the same time. It packs a good punch of knowledge within a small amount of time and I think it really will open up peoples’ minds to the possibilities of what their technology that’s currently at the academic stage can accomplish at the commercial stage.”
Dr. Liu: “For me, I would definitely recommend it to my colleagues if they want to commercialize their technology. I learned a lot of things. As a faculty member, working just in the lab, you could have a perfect technology, however, you don’t know anything about the market. I think it is very important to know the market, and based on that information, further evaluate your technology.“
Matthew: “From my standpoint, coming from the entrepreneur ecosystem, working with a lot of different accelerators across the state, and working with faculty, if they see the potential that their technology is commercially viable, or they feel it is commercially viable, this I-Corps program is the easiest way to help with customer discovery and understand the different customer segments.”
Question #4: What advice would you give future I-Corps participants?
Judee: “For someone who hasn’t done cold emailing or cold calling, the most important thing is just getting that first email out so that you can move beyond that. The more times you do it, the more you’ll start to refine your message. It won’t be as rambly and you’ll know what people are looking for. Another thing that comes to mind is not being so beholden to the end goal of 30 interviews that you are just trying to get them out of the gate without absorbing what those interviews are trying to say. I think your interview process has to evolve over time. Your questions will evolve and the types of customers that you’re targeting will continue to evolve. The third thing is that there are really accomplished people teaching the I-Corps program, and I would definitely stay in touch with them after the program. Absorb as much knowledge as you can from them, because they’ve already gone through this process many times over.”
Dr. Liu: “If possible, any faculty members or students who have technology they want to commercialize should attend these programs to learn something about the market. Use this opportunity to further improve technology and narrow down your focus.”
Matthew: “I tell every startup, customer discovery is one of the cheapest things – it is your time. But, a lot of people get some idea of the technology and they start spending money building a prototype before they’ve done thorough enough customer discovery and research in the market. So, my advice is, before you get too far down the path, prioritize customer discovery, going to an I-Corps program, and better understanding the market and the customer segment. At the end of the day, is somebody willing to write a check for this technology? If you can’t answer that, then it might not be a great idea.”
The Great Lakes I-Corps Hub offers Local and Regional I-Corps courses throughout the year, and can help you choose the right program for your research or technology. Our team can also prepare you to apply for the NSF National I-Corps program and $50,000 grant.