Rutgers launches local National Science Foundation supported program to train scientists to become entrepreneurs

Rutgers received a five-year $500,000 NSF grant to establish its own I-Corps site to offer an abbreviated version of the national program.

Rutgers is launching a new universitywide program to get research out of the laboratory and classroom and into the marketplace faster.

The five-week class brings a version of the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps (I-Corps) training to Rutgers to teach scientists how to become entrepreneurs and will be open students, faculty and staff.

The I-Corps program is based on the Lean Startup methodology developed by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Steve Blank that helps identify whether there is a customer base for an innovative idea – a match that can help determine if, and how, work on a project should go forward.

“It will change the way you look at your research and change the way you look at your career,’’ said Mark DeGuzman, a research project coordinator in the physics department at Rutgers University-Newark. He has served in an entrepreneurial lead role in the national I-Corps training and is helping to bring the program to Rutgers. “There is a national movement toward entrepreneurship education and this program gives participants real-world experience.’’

Rutgers received a five-year, $500,000 NSF grant to establish its own I-Corps site to offer a condensed version of the national program. The initiative aims to offer training to 30 research teams a year working on STEM-based projects that align with NSF research areas, which include biological sciences, computer science, engineering, environmental research, math, physical sciences and social and behavioral sciences. The training will help teams understand how their work can be turned into a product that fits a customer need and could become the basis for a technology startup.

The application deadline for the first cohort of 10 teams is Feb. 9th. But enrollment will remain open for future sessions throughout the semester, said Dunbar Birnie, the Corning/Saint Gobain/Malcolm G. McLaren Chair in Materials Science and Engineering. He is the faculty leader of the grant, in collaboration with the Rutgers Office of Research Commercialization, Rutgers’ Office of Research & Economic Development, and Rutgers Business School – which are all part of the Rutgers Entrepreneurship Coalition led by Lori Dars, associate director of the Office of Economic Development. Regional partners include the New York City Regional Innovation Node (NYCRIN) and the NJ Small Business Development Center.

Rutgers entrepreneurs are encouraged to apply ideally as a team of three, which should include the researcher or inventor who serves as an academic lead; an entrepreneurial lead who would fulfill the role of CEO for the team (and can be a grad student or post-doctoral student); and an industry mentor whose experience and connections can guide the team. Although working with a mentor is required for acceptance into the national program, Birnie said Rutgers I-Corps could assist pairing teams with suitable mentors.  The Rutgers program is also actively recruiting mentors from the business community and Rutgers alumni to support these university teams through the process.

“The general theme is customer development and discovery,’’ Birnie said. “The teams investigate whether the idea is really suitable and gain insights about the industry. Why would customers care about the technology? And, what problems are they trying to solve?’’

Participants in the Rutgers I-Corps site program will receive up to $2,500 toward their market research and be required to conduct dozens of interviews with potential customers to identify whether there is a market for their idea and to refine their business model. Although the program is open to all Rutgers students, faculty and staff from all university locations, the first cohort will be based at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. Based on demand, the plan is to have future cohorts run at Rutgers University-Newark, Rutgers University-Camden, Rutgers Biomedical Health Sciences, and other Rutgers units around the state, DeGuzman said.

The Rutgers course could serve as a feeder into the national program, which offers several months of training and a further $50,000 research grant. DeGuzman said it also can serve to open up Rutgers doctoral students to alternate career paths beyond an academic setting.

“The misconception is that this program is an investment in the technology, but in fact, this program is NSF’s investment in the people who do the research,’’ DeGuzman said. “Once the scientists develop the skill of identifying the value of a technology for a customer and building the relationships with industry, they can do it again for other technologies further down in their career.”

Birnie said the goal of the program is to help good ideas developed at Rutgers make it to the next step to increase the economic impact of research developed at Rutgers. “We want to help our students and faculty become a powerful economic force, which is something that not only benefits Rutgers but benefits the entire state,’’ Birnie said.