The National Science Foundation has announced that it has selected the University of Massachusetts Amherst to be one of its national network of Innovation Corps Sites (I-Corps). The program is intended to increase research commercialization and campus startups while enriching existing innovation infrastructure. Organizers hope to help new ventures bring economic development and jobs to the region.
Kenneth Carter, polymer science and engineering, a faculty inventor, leads the site as its principal investigator. He says, “This is tremendous news for our students in STEM fields, their faculty advisors, industry partners and our alumni who want to give back to the campus through mentoring and other support. We are extremely excited about it.”
His co-principal investigators are Robert MacWright, director of the campus’s Technology Transfer Office, and Nilanjana Dasgupta, psychological and brain sciences.
“The idea is to have faculty, students and mentors team up to advance a technical idea and take it from the laboratory out into the real world." —Kenneth Carter
Vice Chancellor for Research and Engagement Michael Malone notes, “The I-Corps Sites program is a foundational element in the NSF’s effort to facilitate creation of technology-driven, research-based startups. Having a site on campus will enhance our innovation ecosystem and enhance our efforts to translate research into impactful ventures and prepare STEM students for work in the innovation economy.”
Carter adds, “The idea is to have faculty, students and mentors team up to advance a technical idea and take it from the laboratory out into the real world. I-Corps is a curriculum that leads you to discover the potential value of those ideas. While it is clear we would like to see our students and researchers making a product or starting a new company, the major goal of the training is simply to get off campus and interview potential users of a particular idea or technology. From there one can make informed business decisions.”
“NSF would like to see you translate your research and explore opportunities in the marketplace,” he says. “As scientists we’re really good at what we do in the lab, but we don’t really know how to talk to customers. One thing I learned when I participated in the program is that you need to learn from potential customers whether your idea will be useful or not. Sometimes it’s not at all clear.”
Carter is part of a successful startup company, FogKicker, that recently brought a UMass Amherst lab invention to market – a biodegradable, non-toxic anti-fog solution made from nanocellulose that can prevent fog from forming on surfaces such as scuba masks, car windshields and bathroom mirrors.
As the organizers explain, NSF funds I-Corps Sites to nurture and support mixed teams of students, faculty and mentors who learn together and explore translation of their tech concepts into the marketplace.
Carter says that UMass Amherst’s Technology Transfer Office, Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship, Institute for Applied Life Sciences, College of Information and Computer Sciences, College of Engineering, College of Natural Sciences, College of Nursing, and the offices of the Provost and the Vice Chancellor for Research and Engagement and others supported the bid to bring the I-Corps program to campus and continue to contribute to its innovation ecosystem. “All have made substantial investment in making this happen,” says Carter.
The NSF award will provide training and funding to 24 teams per year beginning with a cohort of 12 in Spring 2019. Karen Utgoff, I-Corps Site director, says, “Cohort participants will be trained in the ‘Lean Launchpad’ approach to new ventures development. They’ll be mentored through their initial efforts to talk to potential customers and introduced to other resources throughout the UMass Amherst innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem.”
Utgoff and Carter also point out that the UMass Amherst proposal emphasizes diversity and inclusion. In an idea they say is unique to the UMass program, Dasgupta and Ina Ganguli, assistant professor of economics, will study the impact of recruitment messages on women and minority groups.
Carter explains, “In addition to gaining insight into open questions regarding recruiting and engaging women and underserved groups in technology entrepreneurship, our training will help teams to consider diversity and underserved customer segments in their customer discovery exercises.”
The I-Corps organizers expect most participants to be graduate students, postdoctoral researchers or recent graduates, but the program is open to undergraduate participation, as well. The site will also provide the opportunity for faculty and students to participate in national NSF I-Corps teams that they might not otherwise have had.
Carter says, “We pulled these resources together to design a program that will continue long after the NSF funding has ended. We see a continuous program going into the future because this seed money is not as important as the creation of teams, winning more small business innovation grants, seeing more successful startups, boosting the entrepreneurial spirit of the campus and getting more students trained to participate in the innovation economy.”