We ran the first National Science Foundation Innovation Corps class October to December 2011.
63 scientists and engineers in 21 teams made ~2,000 customer calls in 10 weeks, turning laboratory ideas into formidable startups. 19 of the 21 teams are moving forward in commercializing their technology.
Watching the final presentations it was clear that the results were way past our initial expectations (comments from mentors as well as pre- and post-class survey data suggested that most of the teams learned more in two months than others had in two years.) So much so that the NSF decided to scale the Innovation Corps program.
In 2012 the NSF will put 150 teams of the best scientists in the U.S. through the Lean LaunchPad class. And to help teach these many teams, the NSF will recruit other universities that have engineering entrepreneurship programs to become part of the Innovation Corps network.
Congressman Lipinski Gets It
In-between the 2011 pilot class and the first NSF class of 2012, I got a call from Congressman Dan Lipinski. He sits on the House committee that oversees the NSF – the Science, Space and Technology committee (a place where his engineering degree and PhD comes in handy.) He had read my blog posts about the NSF Innovation Corps and was interested in how the first class went. He wanted to fly out to Stanford and sit in the Lean LaunchPad class about to start in the engineering school.
While I’ve had visitors in my classes before, having a congressman was a first. He showed up with no press in tow, no entourage, just a genuine search for understanding of whether this program was a waste of taxpayer money or good for the country.
He asked tough questions about why the government not private capital should be doing this. I explained that the goal of the Innovation Corps was to bridge what the NSF calls the “ditch of death” — the gap between when NSF research funding runs out and when a team is credible enough (with enough customer and market knowledge) to raise private capital or license/partner with existing companies. The goal was not to replace private capital but to help attract it. The amount of money spent on the Innovation Corps would be about 1/4 of one percent of the $7.373 billion NSF budget, but it would leverage the tens of billions basic research dollars already invested. It’s payoff would be disproportionately large for the country. It’s one of the best investments this country can make for keeping the U.S. competitive and creating jobs.
After class the Congressman joined the teaching team at our favorite pizza place for our weekly post-class debrief.
If you like science, technology or entrepreneurship, this guy is the real deal. He gets it.
“Innovation, jobs and entrepreneurship” have become popular buzzwords in an election year. But it was pretty amazing to see a congressman jump on a plane to actually find out if he can help the country do so. He issued this press release asking Congress to fully fund the Innovation Corps when he came back to Washington.
The National Science Foundation Innovation Corps combines the best of what the U.S. government, American researchers in academia and risk capital can do together. If we’re correct, we can compress the time for commercializing scientific breakthroughs and reduce the early stage risks of these new ventures. This means more jobs, new industries and a permanent edge for innovation in the United States.
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