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National Science Foundation Aims to Turn Research Into Startups

Posted by: John Tozzi on July 29, 2011

This is a guest post by Bloomberg Businessweek reporter Victoria Stilwell.

The National Science Foundation wants to take researchers’ big ideas from the laboratory to marketplace through a new program called Innovation Corps, announced July 28.

The public-private partnership between NSF, the Kauffman Foundation, and the Deshpande Foundation will provide $50,000 grants to help scientists turn research into viable products, says NSF program manager Errol Arkilic. The grants are limited to researchers who have already been funded by NSF. They’re intended to support the projects for up to six months while the teams research how their technology could benefit society.

“We’re trying to support the entrepreneurial education of our researchers,” says Arkilic. “We’ve recognized for a long time that entrepreneurship and engineering and science are very closely related. Some of our most significant technology platforms and companies are based upon really deep science and engineering.”

The NSF will fund 25 teams about every three months at a total cost of $5 million per year. The Kauffman and Deshpande foundations will provide additional money for travel and other expenses.

The program will use the curriculum of Stanford University’s Lean Launchpad, a class developed by serial tech entrepreneur Steve Blank to teach entrepreneurship to engineers, scientists, and other professionals. Blank will also be an I-Corps instructor. He says the main goal of his course is to get students out of their labs to see if what they have to offer is what a customer really needs.

“There’s now a way to teach scientists and engineers how to use the scientific method — which they know how to do because they’re scientists — to figure out if there is potential to commercialize their product,” Blank says.

Classes will begin for the first 25 teams on Oct. 10 with a three-day introduction at Stanford. After the workshop, the teams will participate in five web-based lectures. Each team will bring together a scientist with an entrepreneur and a mentor. During the course, teams will answer key questions to test their business ideas, such as evaluating competitors and determining what resources they will need. Teams are expected to allot at least 15 hours per week for customer discovery outside of other research and lectures.

“We get them to motivate themselves to spend more time outside the building than you ever would have imagined,” Blank says. “The facts are outside the building.”

At the end of the course in December, the teams will return to Stanford to present their business pitches in front of venture capital firms.

Arkilic says there are about 18,000 recipients of NSF support each year that are eligible to apply. The foundation is limiting applications to people who have received research grants in the last five years.

“Innovation has always been something that’s front and center for NSF,” Arkilic says. “Increasingly there’s a recognition that the economic strength of our nation is built on the advances in science and technology.”

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What's it like to run your own company today? Entrepreneurs face multiple hurdles new and old, from raising capital and managing employees to keeping up with technology and competing in a global marketplace. In this blog, the Small Business channel's John Tozzi and Nick Leiber discuss the news, trends, and ideas that matter to small business owners. Follow them on Twitter @newentrepreneur.

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