NSF I-Corps: FAQ

The NSF I-Corps Program exists to help jumpstart a national innovation ecosystem by teaching Lean Startup Methodology with a focus on customer discovery and the business model canvas. The program provides funding and guidance for teams to assess their technology’s commercial viability. Successful I-Corps projects are well positioned to receive future NSF grants designed for slightly more mature technologies, the SBIR and STTR grants.

The I-Corps Program is a “fabric” made of three critical components: I-Corps Teams, I-Corps Sites, I-Corps Nodes, and I-Corps Mentors.

I-Corps Teams are made up of university researchers, including faculty, students, and staff, and an entrepreneurial lead, with each team working on its own I-Corps Project.

I-Corps Sites, such as the UA, educate the I-Corps Teams and provide working spaces for the I-Corps Teams and Mentors.

I-Corps Nodes are regional offices responsible for recruiting the I-Corps Teams at I-Corps Sites and from NSF Fund Reports, as well as providing additional education to I-Corps Teams. 

I-Corps Mentors mentor the teams, providing guidance specific to the problems and obstacles encountered by each individual team.

The Sites program offers early-stage assessment of your technology and business plan, and lets you get a feel for the I-Corps program with a minimal time commitment. Given that trade shows and/or conferences represent an excellent opportunity to engage potential customers, the $3,000 awards are a great way to offset the cost of travel while gathering indispensable feedback.

Additionally, the Sites program helps participants develop an understanding of the customer discovery process and the I-Corps LaunchPad platform utilized by both the Sites and Teams programs. Lastly, successful completion of the Sites program helps applicants prepare for the Teams application process and provides them with a Letter of Support, increasing odds of acceptance.

 

Inventors from the UA and the extended UA community apply for an I-Corps Site award, and a team forms around each project. Each team is comprised of at least a Primary Investigator, an Entrepreneurial Lead, and a Mentor.

At the Site level, teams can be awarded up to $3,000 for customer discovery.

Teams that complete this program and receive their awards become eligible to compete at the national level for $50,000 I-Corps Team awards.

The curriculum is expanded upon in the National Teams phase further in the process during which they work to develop a business model. Once the teams have collected enough information, they make either a “Go” or “No-go” decision based on market research and their proposed business model. After a “Go” decision, the teams decide where to look for funding, such as applying for further NSF grants or courting private investment.

Created, developed, and taught by entrepreneurs, the Lean Launch Program is an experience-based program focused around a “business model canvas”, where I-Corps teams make hypotheses about important aspects of their business model, such as who their key partners and main markets will be, go out and interview experts in the field, and then come back and refine their hypotheses based on the data from the interviews. 

STEM technologies, particularly in medical or engineering fields, are eligible for the I-Corps Program. The I-Corps program is only for scalable, highly innovative technologies with significant risk; if you don’t need help, I-Corps isn’t for you.

To be eligible, your technology needs to be backed by an I-Corps team, composed of an Academic Lead (a primary investigator), Entrepreneurial Lead (a student or post-doc), and a Mentor (a businessperson experienced with commercializing technologies). For teams applying to Tech Launch Arizona’s site program, we can help match you with an experienced mentor. Finally, your technology needs to be early-stage, with under $75,000 in total investment and no SBIR or STTR awards.

The I-Corps Site program is based at affiliated universities, such as the University of Arizona. This is a three-week program, with cohorts meeting twice a week. Participants are awarded up to $3,000 for customer discovery, and are required to interview at least 12 potential customers within a two-month period.

Alternatively, the I-Corps Teams program awards participants $50,000 for customer discovery and the development of a minimum viable product. Ten-thousand dollars of that is reserved for travel expenses and registration in the I-Corps Teams courses, which require 15 hours-a-week of coursework over two months. This includes a three-day immersion session, five weekly webinars, and a final two-day “lessons learned” session. Over the course of the Teams program, participants must interview at least 100 customers. To apply for the I-Corps Teams program, applicants must have had NSF funding in the past five years; participation in the I-Corps Sites program counts as NSF funding. Completing this program increases your likelihood of successfully completing an NSF SBIR/STTR application.

To apply for the I-Corps Site Program, applicants need a full team comprised of Entrepreneurial Lead, Primary Investigator, and Mentor, a description of their technology and IP status, an explanation of the commercial potential of the technology, and a description of the applicant’s interest in the I-Corps Site Program. If you have not identified a Mentor, the TLA I-Corps administration team can help match you with one. The application is available here.

To apply for the I-Corps Teams Program, applicants must submit a one-page executive summary describing your team composition, NSF award history, predicted commercial impact, and detailed commercialization plan. Following this, applying teams will participate in a conference call with NSF. If the application and initial conference call goes well, a second conference call with NSF will be held, after which applicants will submit a five-page proposal. There is a four-week turnaround time after the submission of the final proposal to receive a decision from NSF regarding acceptance to the program. Teams that successfully complete TLA’s Site program will receive a letter of support.

The TLA team can help match you with the right mentor for your team based on area of expertise, experience, and team chemistry. Contact Eric Smith, the Commercialization Network Manager at TLA for help.

Not usually. When talking with customers, proprietary information is typically not disclosed. The conversations will largely involve asking the customers how to best address their needs. Focus on the details that set your technology aside from the competition, but don’t give away proprietary information. If it is absolutely necessary, an NDA can be used.

No, TLA’s I-Corps Site is a purely NSF program. To be eligible for the NIH programs, you must have received either an SBIR or an STTR grant.