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June 27, 2017 | Tom Ballard

UT joins NSF I-Corps program, announces applications for first cohort

NSF I-CorpsBy Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

The University of Tennessee (UT) is now part of the National Science Foundation (NSF) Innovation Corps (I-Corps) initiative designed to help individuals who are interested in commercializing their technology-based ideas build a business model that addresses their customers’ needs.

In an announcement yesterday, UT said that it is now accepting applications for the inaugural cohort for the two-week program that launches in early October. It will be offered by a team from the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (ACEI) and the UT Research Foundation (UTRF), supplemented by instructors from the national I-Corps.

“This program is a great introduction for teams to the national NSF I-Corps program and the resources that are available at UT to support them through the commercialization process,” says Shawn Carson, UT I-Corps South Program Coordinator and Lecturer at UT’s Haslam College of Business.

I-Corps South, operated by the Georgia Institute of Technology, is one of eight regional networks developed by NSF to support innovation education, infrastructure, and research.

“It’s like an airline hub and spoke system” Carson told us last week. In addition to UT, other spokes in the Georgia Tech hub are the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Each of the spokes, in turn, supports additional sites. In UT’s case, those are Tennessee Tech University, University of Louisville, and University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

The inaugural UT program runs October 3–19. Carson and UTRF’s Maha Krishnamurthy will be two of the four instructors.

“Anyone can apply,” Carson said, explaining that applicants must be located in the Southeast and have an interest in commercializing research. University-based teams are preferred, but not required.

“This (two-week program) could fit in well with any graduate student’s schedule,” he noted.

The application period is open through September 29, and interested individuals can find the applications here.

Carson is a long-time player in the Knoxville-Oak Ridge entrepreneurial ecosystem, frequently leading and teaching workshops on various aspects of starting and growing a business. During programs like ACEI’s “Vol Court Pitch Competition and Lecture Series,” he uses the Business Model Canvas popularized by Alex Osterwalder. The canvas includes an expectation the “would be” entrepreneurs will talk to potential customers.

“The problem is that even though entrepreneurs know they need to understand customer needs, they rarely spend the time it takes to find out,” Carson says. “This program (I-Corps) forces this customer discovery process. It’s impacting how I teach entrepreneurship. I’m expanding the amount of customer discovery I’m requiring of my classes.”

I-Corps is not about developing the business plan, but rather a focused program to validate customer need. The curriculum will cover the customer discovery process, developing a value proposition, and creating a business plan.

“It’s a game changer because of its simplicity and focus,” Carson explains.

Participants in the two-week program in October could be recommended for participation in the national cohort that is more rigorous – seven weeks – but also comes with a $50,000 investment.

For Krishnamurthy, Assistant Vice President of Licensing at UTRF, the program enhances her team’s commercialization efforts.

“I-Corps can open many doors and get participants started down the right path to opening a business or commercializing a technology,” she says. “We encourage students, faculty, and entrepreneurs to learn more about I-Corps and see how its programming can help them translate their research into a commercial product that can have a real impact on society.”

The NSF I-Corps program was established in 2011 to help scientists and engineers think beyond the laboratory and identify opportunities for translating research into commercial products that can benefit society.

“We start by divorcing the researchers from their love of their technology,” Carson says. “The emphasis is on marrying a technology solution with a customer need in the marketplace.”

Click here to read the UTRF newsletter article.

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