Q&A with Christina Pellicane, I-Corps Program Administrator

7 OCTOBER, 2019

Why do you think the NSF I-Corps is valuable to starts-up in the science and engineering space?

The University of Delaware’s NSF I-Corps Sites provides grants of up to $3,000 and training to support team-based customer discovery research aimed at investigating the commercial viability and societal impact of a novel STEM technology or process.

Typically, academic researchers who begin down the path of commercialization never stop to ask themselves, “Does anyone care about my technology?” or, even more insightfully, “How does my technology solve a real problem in the world today?”

The I-Corps Site program provides a low-risk environment and a structured process to systematically validate (or invalidate!) components of a business model and ultimately determine whether the business has product-market fit.

Not only that, but the I-Corps site program also provides $3,000 in non-dilutive funding to get out of the building and talk to potential customers. This is an opportunity that didn’t exist for entrepreneurs even 10 years ago. If you wanted to start a startup, you had to bootstrap it or find an investor who believed in you. Academics are great at explaining how a technology works but I-Corps teaches them to learn why it’s valuable to customers.

How many train-the-trainer sessions have you conducted so far?

This cohort is our 15th and it’s the first we’ve done in partnership with the NYC Regional Innovation Node (NYCRIN). NYCRIN runs all of their regional programs as a train-the-trainer, which makes this collaboration very exciting. We’ve been able to train 12 fantastic adjuncts who all have experience as startup founders, CEOs, intrapreneurs or investors! Our bench of potential I-Corps Site instructors has dramatically increased this fall.

Having a larger bench of instructors is important for diversity and inclusion (67% of our current adjuncts-in-training are women or underrepresented minorities) as well as our capacity to train even more I-Corps Site teams going forward with highly-qualified entrepreneurship practitioners.

How do we measure the success of I-Corps?

Fail fast. Fail often. Failing isn’t something we usually celebrate at a university but, when it comes to entrepreneurship education, we do.

It’s important that success is measured by learning and not by validating what you thought might be true about your business model. From that lens, success is measured by talking to many potential customers about their pain points, pivoting and iterating and finally building a solution to a problem that the entrepreneur knows exists because they heard it repeatedly and directly from the voice of the customer.

In addition to measuring the number of customer interviews and strength of the business model, success is measured by the number of teams who received follow-on funding. A few of these funding sources are the NSF I-Corps Teams program, VentureWell’s E-Teams program, our Blue Hen Proof of Concept Program and our Summer Founders pre-accelerator program.

We strongly encourage I-Corps Site teams to apply for the national NSF I-Corps Teams grant, which provides a $50,000 grant and a longer, more intense Lean LaunchPad program.

Tell us more about Horn Entrepreneurship & I-Corps:

Horn Entrepreneurship serves as the University of Delaware’s creative engine for entrepreneurship education and advancement. Built and actively supported by successful entrepreneurs and thought leaders, Horn Entrepreneurship empowers aspiring innovators and entrepreneurs as they pursue new ideas for a better world.

Horn Entrepreneurship became an NSF I-Corps site in 2014 with the central aim of serving as an “Ecosystem Catalyst” for the university and the broader region. In the 4+ years post-award, the impacts and outcomes associated with the site suggest that this aim has been accomplished.

The National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (NSF I-Corps) site program provides specialized training and mini grants of up to $3,000 to help teams bridge the gap between academic research and product commercialization, University intellectual property, or any STEM-related technology. This program provides real-world, hands-on learning experience that improve the odds for successful products and processes that benefit society.

The entire Team will engage with industry stakeholders – including customers, partners and competitors. The team will also experience first-hand, the chaos and uncertainty of commercializing innovations and creating ventures.

This course will not teach you how to write a research paper, business plan or NSF grant proposal. It is also not an exercise to prove how smart you are in a lab / classroom, how well you use the research library, or if you can publish a paper. Rather, this course is about “getting out of the building.” You will spend a significant amount of time talking to customers and testing your hypotheses. You should not participate in the I-Corps program if you cannot commit the time to talk to customers.

Referenced webpages:

Blue Hen Proof of Concept Program: https://www.udel.edu/research-innovation/horn/venture-support/blue-hen-poc/

UD I-Corps Site: https://www.udel.edu/research-innovation/horn/venture-support/nsf-i-corps-sites/

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