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.