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Commentary: Science Rediscovers Entrepreneurship

Steve Blank|Special to CNBC.com
Thursday, 22 Dec 2011 | 10:19 AM ET
Tom Grill | Getty Images

Over the last two months the U.S. government has been running one of the most audacious experiments in entrepreneurship since World War II, as the National Science Foundation set up an incubator for its scientists — the Innovation Corps. Some 21 teams of NSF scientists and engineers participated in the program. The results were truly astounding.

These weren’t 22-year olds who wanted to build a social shopping web site. Each of the teams selected by the NSF had a principal investigator — a research scientist who is a university professor, an entrepreneurial lead — a graduate student working in the investigator’s lab, and a mentor from their local area with business and/or domain expertise. And they were hard at work on some real science.

Unlike other incubators, the I-Corps program used the Lean LaunchPad curriculum. This methodology forces rapid hypothesis testing and customer development by getting out of the building while building the product.

The National Science Foundation bet that the Lean LaunchPad curriculum — focused on rapidly testing startup hypotheses outside the lab — was just an extension of the scientific method that scientists practice every day. The gamble was that we could train professors doing hard-core science, who had never been near a startup nor Silicon Valley, to get out of the building and talk to customers and pivot as easily as a 22-year old with a web startup.

Each team left the confines of the laboratory and cumulatively conducted some 2,000 customer interviews in eight weeks.

On December 15th, teams from throughout the country made their final presentations, based on what they learned from face-to-face feedback from real customers, as well as the product iterations made as a result of that feedback. Each team answered questions about their progress, their product/market fit, and what they learned in the eight-week program.

Among the leading universities represented in this, the first of many such sessions were The University of Southern California, the University of Rochester, Carnegie Mellon, the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the and State University of New York, Stony Brook.

At the University of Pennsylvania, team members from Graphene Frontiers, led by Professor Charlie Johnson, spoke about how, after speaking to 70 people at more than 48 different customer sites about their nanotechnology film innovation, they changed their business model. Their learning led the team to actually split itself it into two distinct businesses: one to sell the film itself, and another to license its innovative mass production technology for use in next-generation “thin film” devices. Their market, the research found, is primed for explosive growth.

Led by Professor Perina Gouma at SUNY Stony Brook, the team from Photocatalysts presented what they learned from speaking to more than 100 customers, dealers and distributors about their novel nanotechnology product that converts polluted water into drinking water. Their nanocatalysts are activated by visible light, and the team found new ways to sell their technology, such as leasing and licensing, and uncovered huge business opportunities in a fast-growing $4 billion-plus market.

By the end of the day it was clear that the NSF “I-Corps” program had cracked the code on moving innovation out of the laboratory. Nineteen of the 21 teams said they were going to continue on the path of building a company. Based on its initial resounding success, the National Science Foundation will expand its Innovation Corps program to 50 more teams in 2012 alone.

Steve Blank is a retired serial entrepreneur. An educator for the last decade, he teaches at Stanford, UC Berkeley and Columbia University. He is the creator of the Lean LaunchPad class.