What is I-Corps™?
The I-Corps™ program was created by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2011 to facilitate the transitions of funded academic research to market. The NSF offers select teams from universities the opportunity to participate in a fast-paced and rigorous program that helps move products out of the lab and into the market by giving them hands-on experience with the challenges of customer discovery.
In the I-Corps™ environment, teams are pushed, challenged, and questioned to help them quickly learn whether or not their ideas are worth pursuing.
The teams — composed of academic researchers, student entrepreneurs, and business mentors — participate in the curriculum via online instruction and on-site activities at one of several I-Corps™ Nodes. An I-Corps™ team project will have three results:
- A clear decision regarding the viability of its products and services
- If the project is viable, then a transition plan for the project to move forward
- A technology demonstration for potential partners
NSF I-Corps™ at CNSI
CNSI at UCSB is partnered with the NSF Los Angeles I-Corps™ Node and instructors from the UCLA Samueli Institute of Technology Advancement to offer ZAP, a regional program that introduces participants to Lean Startup Methodology, Customer Discovery techniques, and the Business Model Canvas. ZAP is offered annually at CNSI and several times a year at UCLA, USC, Caltech, and a few other partner schools. Participants learn fundamental I-Corps™ principles during in-person and virtual sessions, conduct interviews with potential customers, and validate their commercialization strategy. Teams/individuals that complete ZAP are eligible to participate in BOOM - a follow-up virtual program that builds on the results obtained in ZAP. By the end of these regional programs, teams will be evaluated for eligibility for the National NSF I-Corps™ Program and its $50,000 I-Corps™ team grant.
This short regional program enables the participants to:
- Develop entrepreneurial skills
- Evaluate odds for commercial success
- Work to establish product-market fit
- Achieve eligibility to apply for $50,000 I-Corps™ National team grant
ZAP introduces participants to the Lean Startup methodology and techniques to direct customer discovery through field interviews. Participants are required to conduct at least ten customer interviews; three workshop sessions are separated by a 7-30 day window to allow time for the interviews. Selected participants who complete the program may participate in special events organized by IN-LA. Participants that complete ZAP will be eligible to enroll in BOOM.
The advanced BOOM course consists of two sessions, requires 10 interviews and is conducted entirely online. Additional guidance for the aerospace/defense and healthcare industries is provided. Select teams that complete BOOM will be eligible to apply for the $50,000 National I-Corps™ team grant.
BOOM teams, like National I-Corps™ teams, are composed of three members: the Entrepreneurial Lead, typically a postdoctoral researcher, graduate student, or other student who possesses relevant technical knowledge and a deep commitment to investigate the commercial landscape surrounding the innovation; the Technical who serves as the project manager; and the Business Mentor who provides entrepreneurial experience and serves as the principal guide in determining the technology disposition. If the Technical Lead is not a professor, a university PI is also required.
- Do I need a full team (Entrepreneurial Lead, Technical Lead, and Business Mentor) to participate in ZAP?
No. Individuals or small teams without a business mentor are able to participate in ZAP.
- Do I need a full team (Entrepreneurial Lead, Technical Lead, and Business Mentor) to participate in BOOM?
No. The Entrepreneurial Lead (EL) will be asked to identify team members as part of the BOOM application, but only the EL is required to attend the course.
- Do I need to have established a company to participate in ZAP, BOOM, or the National I-Corps™?
No. The Regional and National I-Corps programs are aimed at academics exploring commercialization potential and market interest. Corporate teams are not eligible and should pursue funding sources such as SBIR grants.
- Does a faculty member need to be part of the I-Corps™ team?
No. While the I-Corps™ curriculum is excellent for helping faculty learn how to assess potential commercial interest for their technology, regardless of whether a startup is formed or desired, teams can include only graduate students and/or postdoctoral researchers, with a faculty member acting as a PI for the purposes of grant management and reporting.
- Is it expected that I launch a start-up at the end of I-Corps™?
No. The goal of I-Corps™ is to teach academics how to assess the commercial potential of their technology. While some teams discover that an opportunity exists to launch a company, a "No-Go" decision for many teams is an equally positive outcome. "No-Go"s often lead to a return to the laboratory and/or pivots in the direction of the development effort in order to increase relevance and impact of the university technology .
Moreover, I-Corps™ offers an excellent opportunity to investigate market pain-points in support of establishing new industry collaborations and research opportunities, and in de-risking development and marketing of intellectual property.
- Can I apply for the National I-Corps™ without first going through ZAP and BOOM?
Depends. If the technology being investigated has an NSF funding lineage, then it is possible to apply directly for the National I-Corps™ program grant. However, given the intensity of the National I-Corps™ program, ZAP and BOOM offer a more gradual ramp-up and an excellent way to establish the teams credentials prior to the National I-Corps™ program interviews and grant application. For technologies not based on NSF funding, ZAP and BOOM establish the lineage required for eligibility to the National I-Corps™ program.