On the last day Congress was in session in 2016, Democrats and Republicans agreed on a bill that increased innovation and research for the country.
For me, seeing Congress pass this bill, the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act, was personally satisfying. It made the program I helped start, the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (I-Corps) a permanent part of the nation’s science ecosystem. I-Corps uses Lean Startup methods to teach scientists how to turn their discoveries into entrepreneurial, job-producing businesses. I-Corps bridges the gap between public support of basic science and private capital funding of new commercial ventures. It’s a model for a government program that’s gotten the balance between public/private partnerships just right. Over 1,000 teams of our nation’s best scientists have been through the program.
The bill directs the expansion of I-Corps to additional federal agencies and academic institutions, as well as through state and local governments. The new I-Corps authority also supports prototype or proof-of-concept development activities, which will better enable researchers to commercialize their innovations. The bill also explicitly says that turning federal research into companies is a national goal to promote economic growth and benefit society. For the first time, Congress has recognized the importance of government-funded entrepreneurship and commercialization education, training, and mentoring programs specifically saying that this will improve the nation’s competitiveness. And finally this bill acknowledges that networks of entrepreneurs and mentors are critical in getting technologies translated from the lab to the marketplace.
This bipartisan legislation was crafted by senators Cory Gardner (R–CO) and Gary Peters (D–MI). Senator John Thune (R–SD) chairs the Senate commerce and science committee that crafted S. 3084. After years of contention over reauthorizing the National Science Foundation, House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith and Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson worked to negotiate the agreement that enabled both the House and the Senate to pass this bill.
While I was developing the class at Stanford, it was my counterparts at the NSF who had the vision to make the class a national program. Thanks to Errol Arkilic, Don Millard, Babu Dasgupta, Anita LaSalle (as well as current program leaders Lydia McClure, Steven Konsek) and the over 100 instructors at the 53 universities who teach the program across the U.S.
But I haven’t forgotten that before everyone else thought that teaching scientists how to build companies using Lean Methods might be a good for the country, there was one congressman who got it first.
In 2012, Representative Dan Lipinski (D-Il), co-chair of the House STEM Education Caucus, got on an airplane and flew to Stanford to see the class first-hand.
For the first few years Lipinski was a lonely voice in Congress saying that we’ve found a better way to train our scientists to create companies and jobs.
This bill is a reauthorization of the 2010 America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science (COMPETES) Act, which set out policies that govern the NSF, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and federal programs on innovation, manufacturing, and science and math education. Reauthorization bills don’t fund an agency, but they provide policy guidance. It resolved partisan differences over how NSF should conduct peer review and manage research.
I-Corps is the accelerator that helps scientists bridge the commercialization gap between their research in their labs and wide-scale commercial adoption and use.
Why This Matters
While a few of the I-Corps teams are in web/mobile/cloud, most are working on advanced technology projects that don’t make TechCrunch. You’re more likely to see their papers (in material science, robotics, diagnostics, medical devices, computer hardware, etc.) in Science or Nature.
I-Corps uses everything we know about building Lean Startups and Evidence-based Entrepreneurship to connect innovation to entrepreneurship. Its curriculum is built on a framework of business model design, customer development and agile engineering – and its emphasis on evidence, Lessons Learned versus demos, makes it the worlds most advanced accelerator.
Its success is measured not only by the technologies that leave the labs, but how many U.S. scientists and engineers we train as entrepreneurs and how many of them pass on their knowledge to students. I-Corps is our secret weapon to integrate American innovation and entrepreneurship into every U.S. university lab.
Every time I go to Washington and spend time at the National Science Foundation or National Institute of Health I’m reminded why the U.S. leads the world in support of basic and applied science. It’s not just the money we pour into these programs (~$125 billion/year), but the people who have dedicated themselves to make the world a better place by advancing science and technology for the common good.
Congratulations to everyone in making the Innovation Corps a national standard.