Why you should be an I-Corps Mentor

Mentorship is a critical element of the I-Corps program. A required member of NSF National I-Corps teams, Industry Mentors offer encouragement, guidance, and practical advice as teams work through the I-Corps program. Mentors are typically industry experts with business/entrepreneurial experience who are independent of the technology development and team. By being a third-party resource for the team, the mentor can help the team recognize and reduce confirmation bias during the customer discovery process. 


In addition to being able to work with an early-stage innovative team, mentors receive several benefits from participating in I-Corps: 

  • Working with smart, motivated technologists and helping them make a positive impact on the world by translating their technology into societal benefits
  • Access to cutting-edge research at top universities 
  • Create closer ties with world-class universities and faculty members in your domain
  • Connections to the National Innovation Network (i.e. the national entrepreneurial ecosystem – faculty and researchers, domain experts, VCs, entrepreneurs)
  • Lead a faculty and graduate student team in the execution of a high-profile project
  • Possibility of entry into subsequent commercialization activities with the team


We talked with three National I-Corps mentors from the Great Lakes Region, Christine Cunningham, Dan Vining, and Bob Leach about their experience with mentoring I-Corps teams. They described why they enjoy mentoring teams and some of the benefits it can provide.


Christine Cunningham

Dr. Cunningham is currently a Professor of Practice in Education and Engineering at Penn State University. She has extensive experience in engineering education. Previously, she was an Industry Mentor for a team from Purdue University.


Why would you recommend someone become an I-Corps Mentor?

I found that being a mentor encouraged me to reflect on and articulate successful and unsuccessful strategies that I had used. It also pushed my own thinking by focusing me on another, similar project and gave me opportunities to participate in rich discussions across the teams and mentors. Finally, I enjoyed working with the I-Corps leadership team.


What were some of the things you did as a Mentor?

I met regularly with the team to discuss their progress and ask questions to help them consider new ideas or perspectives. I conducted interviews with stakeholders and review project plans and presentations.


What are some of the benefits of the I-Corps program?

It encourages researchers to think, in-depth, about the outcomes, users, and scalability of their work. The I-Corps program provides explicit structures, space, and priority for a team to interact with team members, mentors, experts, and with others conducting similar kinds of work. Carving this space out from daily life can be difficult, so such a program encourages researchers to undertake this work and engage in market-based research and intensive interviews with possible users or stakeholders.


Dan Vining

Dan Vining has over 15 years of engineering experience. In Spring 2022, he was the Mentor for a University of Toledo I-Corps team.


Why did you become an I-Corps Mentor?

I was on a planned break from my professional career and looking to engage in a support role with innovation the support climate change initiatives.


What were some of the activities you did as a Mentor?

I provided guidance to my team on market opportunities and entry points based on interviews. I helped the team narrow their customer segment and focus their efforts. In addition, I actively counseled/coached the team on the Business Model Canvas to better understand its dimensions and where their project was positioned.


Why would you recommend someone become an I-Corps Mentor?

A huge benefit is knowledge sharing. The students learn a great deal by interacting with industry, but my experience taught me that the team needs a translator. In most instances, my team was not comprehending what they were being told by industry. Finally, the I-Corps program is well-oiled and administered. The teaching team’s engagement is outstanding. 


Bob Leach

Bob Leach is a business advisor with Braintree Business Development Center in Ohio. He has gone through NSF National I-Corps twice as a Mentor.


Why did you become an I-Corps Mentor?

It started as a natural progression in my position as a business adviser for the non-profit Business Assistance Center (part of the Ohio Third Frontier program) where I am employed. I personally started using the Lean Startup and Business Model Canvas methodology when working with start-ups 10 or 11 years ago. 


What are some of the benefits of the I-Corps program?

I-Corps forces teams to directly confront what problem they are addressing, who cares, and more importantly, who is willing to pay to fix it. 


Why would you recommend someone become an I-Corps Mentor?

If you are a technology geek, it allows you to see a variety of different technologies in their early stages. Secondly, I always get a kick when a team has that ‘Ah Ha’ moment and either find that value proposition or realize there is not one (both are good). In a broader sense, I enjoy seeing especially technical teams start to understand something outside of their science/technology. 




Quotes edited for clarity


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NSF I-Corps Hub: Great Lakes Region, 2023