I-Corps promotes entrepreneurship for students, faculty


Katie Carr, Coordinated Science Laboratory

A key part of conducting research is in understanding how the results might be used and considering the needs of potential users of the work. Why create a product, technology or idea that doesn’t satisfy the needs of the end user?

Illinois’ Technology Entrepreneur Center (TEC), one of the University’s key resources in educating students and faculty to become successful leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs, now has a new resource at its disposal to help students and faculty learn about commercialization.

Members of the second cohort in Illinois' I-Corps Sites program meet to discuss the status of their projects. Photo by Arjun Fadnis.
Members of the second cohort in Illinois' I-Corps Sites program meet to discuss the status of their projects. Photo by Arjun Fadnis.
The University of Illinois was chosen to be one of three locations, along with the University of Akron and the University of California, San Diego, for the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) new Innovation Corps (I-Corps) Sites program.

“Illinois has been a key player in the commercialization of government funded research for several decades,” said Andrew Carl Singer, ECE professor and director of the TEC. “The government is putting billions of dollars into research and we need to help turn that investment into jobs, technologies and other economically competitive advantages for our state and the nation. Programs like this are important for the state to show its economic development nationally, and also for the university to show that we play an important role in the economic development of the state.”

I-Corps is a national program that develops teams whose technology has promising commercialization applications. The Sites program, which will be run through the TEC in partnership with Research Park, is an introductory step to NSF’s national I-Corps program and is designed to prepare university teams for applying to the national program.

“It’s important for anyone who wants to be a productive researcher or engineer to understand the needs of the end user of their work,” Singer said. “Research for research’s sake is fine, but you always need to think about why you are doing what you’re doing, who will want it and how they could benefit from using it.”

Throughout the eight-week program, teams, which typically consist of a faculty member and a graduate student, attend four workshops where they get instruction on business start up methodology, such as making cold calls, performing market evaluations and developing value proposition, and hear from speakers who have commercialization experience. The teams are given assignments to do readings, watch videos or talk to people in their industry.

“The program is more about ensuring what they are working on is important and solving real-world problems and that they are building solutions to problems that people care about,” said Jed Taylor, assistant director of the TEC. “The goal is to get teams out of the lab and talking to people. What often happens is that people build solutions, or solve problems, that people don’t care about.”

TEC started its first cohort in August and is aiming to have 30 teams go through the eight-week process during the first year. They are looking for teams that aspire to explore the commercialization of basic research from any area across campus. In their first cohort, they had teams from electrical and computer engineering, music, agriculture and materials science.

“When you go out and not necessarily talk about your technology, but talk to people about their problems, you start to hear interesting things and start learning about new problems that you can solve,” Taylor said. “You end up doing a lot more listening than you might have expected.”

ECE Professor Grace Xingxin Gao recently moved from Stanford University, where starting a company as a career path is regularly considered and encouraged.

Members of Illinois' I-Corps Sites program listen as a team presents their progress on their research. Photo by Arjun Fadnis.
Members of Illinois' I-Corps Sites program listen as a team presents their progress on their research. Photo by Arjun Fadnis.
“For students, this program is important to give them the idea that starting up a company is one of the career paths when they graduate,” Gao said. “They might not even know about it. In the Bay Area, they constantly have this option on their mind, so students are more aware of it. Entrepreneurship is not something far away, but an option they could do right away and it is a feasible career path.”

Gao is participating in the second I-Corps cohort to push her GPS authentication research further. She suspects that there could be opportunities to start a company in this research area, but she’s working to narrow the possibilities down to figure out what would be a good niche for her.

“These conversations with people in the industry from the early stages are very useful. Sometimes professors tend to create a product and then go to a company. By that time, it could be too late and they could realize they have been on the wrong track for too long,” Gao said. “We’re so used to publishing academic papers and that’s our perspective of innovation. I-Corps helps us to think from the market side of the business and to better understand what business is about and what leads to the success of a business.”

Teams are provided $2,000 in funding to help commercialize their research and would receive $50,000 if accepted into the national program. However, Singer doesn’t believe that the additional funding is the most beneficial part of the process.

“The best part about the I-Corps program is not the money that comes along with it, but it’s the experience and going through the process of interacting with potential customers and thinking critically about who it is that wants your technology and how you could use your technology to fit their needs,” he said.

Illinois was ranked first in NSF funding in 2011 and has produced seven NSF national I-Corps teams to date, along with already having a mature entrepreneurship ecosystem across campus.

Singer and Taylor’s goal for the program is that when a team completes the eight weeks, they will be in a strong position to apply for the national I-Corps program, apply for Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants (potentially $1.5 million through two phases) from the government or even pitch their technology to venture capitalists.

“This is a great program because it helps our ecosystem here by encouraging commercialization of more research out of our labs, which is good for all of us – the community, state, faculty members and the entrepreneurial ecosystem here at Illinois,” Taylor said.

To more information or to apply to the program, visit the Research Park or TEC websites.