UC Merced recently joined the ranks of six other UCs and 70 other universities around the country when it was selected as the newest site for the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps program (NSF I-Corps). Now, with application deadlines looming, I-Corps is actively seeking its first cohort of campus-affiliated, STEM-focused entrepreneurs to participate in this startup incubator.
“I-Corps helps researchers liberate their innovations from the lab,” said Cara Baird, program manager for NSF I-Corps at UC Merced.
As part of the Office of Business Development, NSF I-Corps will provide UC Merced’s Venture Lab, the university’s main hub for innovation and entrepreneurship, additional resources to promote new ventures founded by university affiliates.
“The Venture Lab still operates the same, but it now has a new set of tools to help entrepreneurs in a different way than we could before,” Baird said.
I-Corps will connect budding entrepreneurs with experienced business leaders who can help them commercialize their ideas. I-Corps, however, will focus exclusively on STEM-driven ventures, in accordance with the NSF’s primary mission.
Participants work in three-person teams consisting of an entrepreneurial, academic and business lead. While the entrepreneurial lead can be anyone affiliated with UC Merced (other than faculty), the academic and business leads have somewhat stricter requirements.
Academic leads must have an academic appointment and be able to apply for NSF funding as a PI. Business leads are expected to have startup experience that includes an understanding of how to take technology out of the lab and into the marketplace. Beyond that, teams are free to assemble as they choose.
I-Corps is funded by a five-year, $400,000 NSF grant. The money will be used to provide participants with Idea Grants and Member Grants. Idea Grants are $1,000 awards to encourage UC Merced researchers to file invention disclosures with the Office of Business Development. Member Grants of $1,000-$3,000 will enable I-Corps teams to conduct market research.
Teams will also participate in workshops that provide coaching in the fundamentals of business development. The ultimate goal of these workshops is to help participants hone their business acumen and turn their ideas into viable commercial enterprises.
Workshops will center around activities that help participants identify potential customers and pinpoint client needs. Using the information obtained, teams will works with I-Corps leaders to continuously refine their business models until they’re able to realize their ventures.
Although the program has yet to launch, the Office of Business Development is setting an ambitious agenda for I-Corps.
Baird expects that I-Corps will nurture 15 projects its first year while adding five additional projects each subsequent year. By year four, Baird anticipates as many as 30 teams participating.
But she’s quick to point out that I-Corps is not meant to serve as a funding source for basic research, despite the fact that it originates with the NSF.
“People confuse tech development with business development,” Baird said. “This program is meant for business development. It’s for teams to do market research.”
Interested parties are encouraged to attend monthly I-Corps Social Fuse informational events. The first is scheduled for 4-5 p.m. July 13 in KL 397. Additional inquiries about NSF I-Corps can be addressed to Cara Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org. Applications for the first I-Corps cohort must be submitted online by August 4. Workshops begin September 5.