NSF & NIH I-Corps for Entrepreneurs - What's the Difference?

In the past few years, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has developed an Innovation Corps (I-Corps) opportunity. As per the NIH, “The I-Corps at NIH curriculum is designed to provide scientists from NIH Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) funded companies with real-world, hands-on entrepreneurship training.  This program seeks to accelerate the development and commercialization of new products and services.” For individuals or organizations considering participating, it is worthwhile to point out how this opportunity differs from the original National Science Foundation (NSF) I-Corps program from which the NIH program was derived.

The similarities. NSF and NIH I-Corps grant opportunities are competitive programs that provide entrepreneurial training and supplemental funding (~$50,000) to help translate research ideas into viable products. Both include an intensive entrepreneurial immersion course that aims to provide teams with “skills and strategies to reduce commercialization risk.” The curriculum emphasizes speaking directly with customers (via interviews) to test hypotheses about the need for their proposed technology. Both programs require a time commitment from the team (e.g., NIH expects each team member to spend at least 20 hours per week on I-Corps activities). They both require that at least 100 customer interviews are conducted during the course. Both focus on experiential learning rather than textbook learning. They both want to increase the economic impact of government research dollars, and they both want to help steer early ideas in the right direction before money is wasted pursuing the wrong product or market!

The differences. The primary difference is eligibility. NSF I-Corps focuses on academic teams who have not yet formed a company. These teams include an entrepreneurial lead (typically a postdoctoral researcher, graduate student, or other student), a principal investigator (typically a professor), and a business mentor/industry expert. Applicants must have received a prior award from NSF in the last 5 years. The applicant for NSF I-Corps is an academic institution. Conversely, NIH I-Corps focuses on Phase I SBIR/STTR awardees, which requires that the company already be formed. The NIH I-Corps team includes a C-level officer from the company, the PI from the SBIR/STTR Phase I award, and an industry expert. The applicant for NIH I-Corps is the small business that received the SBIR/STTR.

Another key difference, according to a recent NIH webinar, is the way the course is taught. NIH uses a combination of I-Corps experts as well as domain experts in the life sciences, including those experienced with drug, diagnostics, and device development. Because NSF topics are so broad (e.g., topics range from electronics to environmental to biomedical), it is difficult to have experts for every topic, so the NSF program primarily uses I-Corps/business experts to teach the course.

Finally, NSF I-Corps participants report that some of the training sessions can be intense. That is, if the student or postdoc is not well prepared for their presentation or exercise, the I-Corps personnel will not provide complements to make them feel better; they will let them know what they did wrong, and they will let them know in a way that will make them want to do it right the next time! On the other hand, I was told that NIH initially attempted to replicate this “tough love” process, but they realized that small businesses are a little more experienced and/or are not as receptive to tough love as students and postdocs. Therefore, the NIH I-Corps program is probably described as less “in-your-face” with respect to critiques, but it is very demanding nonetheless.

Below are first-hand accounts from I-Corps participants. 

“After going through I-Corps we understand we have to focus on a small subset [of customers] and prioritize segments based on their value propositions.”

“At the end of it we did have 103 interviews.  It was a lot.  And it was difficult to do and stressful at times, but it was super useful.” 

Overall, if you are a student or an NIH SBIR/STTR awardee that wants to confirm you are headed in the right direction, or if you need a slight course correction, these I-Corps programs could be a very valuable step towards your commercial success!

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