ECU, NC State, N.C. A&T and UNC Greensboro join prestigious NSF I-Corps program

The University of North Carolina as a system has championed innovation and new start-ups for years, and four constituent institutions – East Carolina University, North Carolina State University, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro – have been named the newest sites for the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program, a program that encourages collaboration between academia and industry.

NC State and East Carolina will each host their own I-Corps sites, while UNC Greensboro and North Carolina A&T will combine efforts for a joint I-Corps site. The four universities join the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, which became part of the I-Corps program in 2015.

Officials from all four campuses noted the advantages of having the I-Corps name attached to a start-up as a way to raise funding and attract investment. The name also imparts a “lineage” with the NSF, streamlining the process for participating teams to apply for future NSF funding.

Start-up teams are comprised of one faculty advisor and one student leader – undergraduate, graduate, researcher or doctoral – plus any other students who want to be involved. Teams can be formed through classroom association, on-campus organizations or simply through mutual interests.

The teams are introduced to the I-Corps system known as the “Lean LaunchPad Method.” According to the I-Corps website, the method focuses on the startup experience and the skills necessary to develop successful business ventures. By promoting the development of research, analytical thinking, and problem solving skills in engineering students, the Lean LaunchPad approach provides a relevant platform for academic support and experiential learning. Students learn that failure is a necessary part of learning that allows them to gain valuable research, innovation, and design experiences regardless of whether the business case for an idea is viable or not.

I-Corps sites are awarded $100,000 for a three-year period to fund entrepreneurial teams with small grants of $3,000 to help develop their businesses through field research. The NSF’s ultimate goal through the program is to encourage collaboration between academia and industry and to train students to understand innovation and entrepreneurship. I-Corps sites spur local innovation and contribute to the National Innovation Network of mentors, researchers, entrepreneurs and investors.

The four universities will kick off their I-Corps program this fall, and officials from the campuses consulted with UNC Charlotte’s I-Corps team to learn the ins-and-outs of building the program.

UNC Charlotte

UNC Charlotte’s interest in engaging the city’s growing tech sector long predates I-Corps. When the university became an I-Corps site, it offered a new and unique approach to faculty and students for further innovation.

Paul Wetenhall, project leader for Ventureprise Inc., UNC Charlotte’s I-Corps program, said since the university was awarded the grant, some 47 faculty-student partnerships have created start-ups in the program’s first three years, flowing in synch with the city’s tech boom.

“There was a lot of research coming out of the university,” Wetenhall said. “At the same time, we knew we needed to make use of the business ecosystem that was booming. It was booming because of business attraction, not because of homegrown entrepreneurial success.”

Both of those concepts converged around the idea of evidence-based entrepreneurship of engaging their potential customers and stakeholders early through the Lean LaunchPad Method.

As of this summer, 47 teams from UNC Charlotte have gone through the program. Some of those teams have gone on to the national $50,000 NSF I-Corps program, and two of those teams have advanced to receive an Accelerating Innovation Research-Technology Translation (AIR-TT) Grant ($200,000) and Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase I and II grants ($250,000 and $750,000, respectively).

Proposed ideas and technologies must fall into a STEM category, and each team must contain at least one faculty member (the academic lead) and student (the entrepreneurial lead), who can be either an undergraduate, graduate or post-doctoral student. Teams go through five workshops during a cohort, followed by a final presentation in which they must have completed 30 or more customer interviews about their product.

Co-project director Devin Collins said the teams receive a number of benefits beyond just the funding and academic credit. I-Corps serves as a way to open doors for teams when they are seeking out other funding opportunities.

“It’s also a resume builder for faculty and students, the fact that they have done NSF research,” Collins said. “Teams that go through I-Corps at the site or at the national level, they have better chance of getting funding through other programs. It’s extremely beneficial for follow-on funding.”

NC State

Wade Fulghum, the managing director of NC State’s I-Corps site,  said that although NC State is known regionally and nationally for its programs geared toward innovation and receives NSF funding for two engineering research centers, there has already been a lot of interest in I-Corps among NC State faculty.

“We have various flavors of entrepreneurship training, counseling and coaching in our College of Management, and we’re partners with several business incubators in the region,” Fulghum said. “The unique thing about I-Corps is that most of the funding we will get goes directly back to the teams to incentivize them to go through the I-Corps curriculum. I-Corps, the way it’s set up, is a very efficient program. It’s really the gold standard in capturing the voice of the customer and fleshing out the business model canvas.”

Fulghum said the university is targeting three I-Corps cohorts per year, with 10 teams per cohort.

East Carolina

When the NSF opened up the I-Corps program to expand innovation efforts, East Carolina was approached by the North Carolina Department of Commerce to consider attending an I-Corps course.

“We got a better understanding of how I-Corps has evolved through NSF,” said Marti Van Scott, director of the university’s Office of Technology Transfer. “We learned that I-Corps had evolved and there was an area which we fit into, the site program. If we became a site, we learned that our graduates could apply for the national program, which would mean quite a lot more funding opportunities.”

Van Scott determined East Carolina would be competitive with other universities applying for sites and identified a number of sources that teams could come from to meet NSF’s quota of 30 teams per year.

“The plan for I-Corps is to offer a short primer for students in any discipline, and if they are interested in the program, do a longer program that will probably be STEM-related,” she said. “We have a number of good resources on campus.”

UNC Greensboro/North Carolina A&T

With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), civil engineer Ellie Fini and a team at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical (NC A&T) State University have designed a sticky binder made from pig manure that can be used to make asphalt.

With the campuses only a few miles apart and the universities collaborating on a number of degree programs already, the partnership to join I-Corps was a natural fit for North Carolina A&T and UNC Greensboro.

Barry Burks, the vice chancellor for research and economic development at N.C. A&T, said his staff had done some collaboration on I-Corps projects with Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech. Having a potential partnership with UNC Greensboro made the idea of becoming a site worth exploring.

 “I’m hoping that between the two universities, we stimulate new start-ups and enrich the entrepreneurial environment here in the Greensboro area,” Burks said. “There’s a lot of entrepreneurial activity in Greensboro, but it tends to be fragmented. I’d like to take some of these fragmented efforts and do more integration. There are people willing to do that.”

Justin Streuli, director of UNC Greensboro’s North Carolina Entrepreneurship Center, said a team went through the program last summer to learn more about I-Corps.

After that experience and the feedback we got, we said we had to apply to get this program at UNCG,” he said. “It was just an incredible opportunity to help our researchers to see if there’s commercial viability for their innovations, as well as students who had STEM-focused business ideas.”

Streuli said there could be teams that are a mix of students from both campuses.

Taylor Mabe, a fourth-year doctoral student at UNC Greensboro’s School of Nanoscience is part of one of the three teams already accepted into the cohort.

Mabe and faculty partner Jianjun Wei are looking to create a start-up business for a bio-sensor device that’s a new way to test for diseases. Streuli suggested to Mabe and Wei that the I-Corps program might help them launch the business.

“I think it will be a great fit for us because we have a platform technology,” Mabe said. “Whatever biological element you stick on the surface is the disease you can test for. We’re hoping that with the customer discovery process through I-Corps, we’ll find that perfect marriage on how best to use our technology in the real world.”