Are you curious if the NSF I-Corps program is right for you? We sat down with the medical software team SmarTreartMate who recently completed the program, and discussed their experiences and gained some invaluable insights on I-Corps and innovation.
What is NSF I-Corps?
The National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps (I-Corps) is an entrepreneurial training program that helps researchers bring their innovative research from the lab to the marketplace. The virtual program challenges teams to talk with customers to validate their idea, and learn about the Lean LaunchPad principles for commercialization.
About the Team: SmarTreatMate
SmarTreatMate completed the Summer 2023 I-Corps cohort. During the program, the team conducted over 100 customer interviews to learn more about their industry and customer needs.
SmarTreatMate is creating AI-driven software to assist physicians in treating cancer. The software uses patient data to enable better decision-making and also helps to identify potential side effects and drug interactions.
The Missouri University of Science and Technology-based team included entrepreneurial leads Navid Seidi and Yasaman J. Soofi, technical lead Dr. Sajal Das, and industry mentor Ferdinand Belga. Let’s learn more about their experience with the NSF I-Corps program.
How was your experience with NSF I-Corps?
My experience with NSF I-Corps was transformative for the SmarTreatMate project. The program provided an invaluable platform for customer discovery, which helped us fine-tune our value proposition and better understand market needs. Being able to interact with industry leaders, healthcare providers, and end-users gave us deep insights into how SmarTreatMate could effectively address gaps in the market.
Yasaman J. Soofi
NSF I-Corps was a game-changer. It gave us a chance to dig deep into commercializing SmarTreatMate. The program’s focus on customer discovery and market validation improved our business model. Mentorship and networking with experts transformed our entrepreneurial approach.
Excellent! Great foundational key learning for institutional colleagues to learn how to conceive potential innovations to the market.
What were your biggest takeaways from the program?
Customer-Centric Approach: We learned the importance of designing solutions with the end-user in mind, informed by real-world feedback.
Value of Cross-Functional Teams: Our team, consisting of technical experts, entrepreneurs, and medical professionals, proved essential in covering all aspects of product development and business strategy.
Pivoting is Essential: Based on the feedback received, we learned that we needed to pivot our initial broad business hypothesis to a more focused one, emphasizing cost optimization and user experience.
Yasaman J. Soofi
NSF I-Corps taught us three crucial lessons: 1) Prioritize customer needs and market demand, not just product development. 2) Be agile and data-driven, adapting based on feedback. 3) Build a strong team and network for partnerships and funding.
A major takeaway for me was how to convey the impacts and innovative aspects of our research and technology innovation to the end users (customers), finding an answer to “who cares”, and how to define product-market fit. This learning exercise will help change our mindset to conduct basic/applied research that will bring societal and economic impacts, as we will always keep the customers and stakeholders in mind.
From the mentor’s perspective, breaking down and prioritizing key foundations to academic colleagues. The I-Corps program provides the key foundations to which we (as mentors) can explain in more detail as they apply to our project.
What surprised you about I-Corps?
What surprised us most was the extent to which assumptions could be off-target. The customer discovery process revealed that some features we considered minor were actually of major importance to potential users. Moreover, the mentorship and the rigor of the program exceeded our expectations, pushing us to be critical thinkers and agile developers.
Yasaman J. Soofi
I-Corps was surprisingly intense, making us rigorously question assumptions and biases during customer discovery. We had to pivot a lot based on customer feedback. The industry experts and mentors’ engagement was remarkable and unexpected.
Why should other students, researchers, or faculty attend I-Corps?
Anyone involved in research or development with commercial potential should consider attending I-Corps. The program offers an unmatched environment for validation, mentorship, and skill development. It is an excellent platform for converting academic and scientific potential into market-ready solutions. For SmarTreatMate, it has been a cornerstone experience that has considerably elevated our project’s readiness for the next phase.
Yasaman J. Soofi
I highly recommend that other students, researchers, and faculty consider attending the NSF I-Corps program for several reasons: 1) Practical Skills: Gain crucial entrepreneurship, customer discovery, and market validation skills. 2) Networking: Connect with experts, investors, and fellow entrepreneurs. 3) Funding: Access NSF grants and resources for innovation development. 4) Validation: Test and adapt ideas in the real world for increased success. 5) Mentorship: Benefit from experienced entrepreneurs’ insights. 6) Mindset Shift: Transform from academic thinking to an entrepreneurial mindset for research and innovation success.
In addition to learning how to stay focused and identify the niche market and customer segments about an innovation, the I-Corps training provides faculty, postdocs, and grad students a refreshing outlook on how to conduct academic research leading to impacts, convincing them that with the right mindset, one can be an excellent researcher as well as an entrepreneur.
Interested in I-Corps? Check out our upcoming courses:
Quotes Edited for Clarity
NSF I-Corps Hub: Great Lakes Region, 2023