Innovation Squared

It is the genius of the obvious: applying the “Lean Launchpad” methodology of entrepreneurship to science-driven startups. 

It turns out there is not much difference between the scientific method (hypothesis / experiment / analysis / refine hypothesis / repeat) and the codified common sense business development strategy pioneered by serial entrepreneur and Stanford b-school legend Steve Blank (business hypothesis / field surveys / analysis / refine hypothesis). So why not put them together? 

Which is exactly what the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps program has done in an effort to speed up the commercialization of promising technologies developed in university labs. The inaugural class of 21 teams from across the country gathered for the very first demo day last week in Palo Alto.

The results are impressive. Notes Errol Arkilic, the NSF program officer overseeing I-Corps, “Some of these teams have made more progress in understanding what their opportunity is and repositioning their effort in six weeks than projects we’ve supported for six months.”

Xconomy’s Wade Roush has been covering the project since it was announced last summer. Here are his thumbnails describing some of the proto-businesses: 

  • TexCone (University of Virginia, Charlottesville: Laser-treated hydrophobic surfaces for reducing ice buildup on aircraft wings.
  • Ion Express (UCLA): Cheaper, simpler ion channel screening test systems for pharmaceutical companies.
  • BigData (George Washington University): Data mining for intelligence agencies and hedge-fund analysts.
  • Carbon Cultures (University of Washington): Conversion of timber waste into “biochar” for soil amendment.
  • Explosives Detection (University of Connecticut, Storrs): Nanocomposite materials that change their appearance under ultraviolet light when exposed to explosives.
  • Fluid Synchrony (USC): Miniaturized, implantable drug infusion pumps for control of chronic pain.
  • BiddingPal/iDecideFast (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign): Online tools based using psychological and decision science insights to help real-estate buyers and auction participants maximize their changes of submitting a winning bid.
  • Ground Fluor Pharmaceuticals (University of Nebraska, Lincoln): A cheaper, simpler system for synthesizing the radiopharmaceutical agents injected into patients before PET scans.
  • TOSCA (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute): “Terahertz on silicon chip arrays” for defense, aerospace, and security applications that require very fast on-chip processing.
  • GlucoSentient (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign): Technology that tweaks existing glucose meters to test for other health indicators such as HbA1C, a marker of diabetes.
  • Graphene Frontiers (University of Pennsylvania): A chemical vapor deposition method for growing sheets of carbon atoms on plastic or glass, for use as transparent conductors in solar panels, smart windows, or advanced displays.


Even the losers—those teams that won’t go on to receive next stage NSF grants—are winners, emerging from the competition with tighter business models, better positioned to go after other funding. 

Although the “lean startup” mantra of continuous consumer research has its limits (Steve Jobs was famously allergic to focus groups, saying that consumers cannot imagine they need something that does not yet exist, e.g., an iPad), it works beautifully for innovations that focus on improvements to existing technologies or address specific, readily identifiable needs. 

Add Doblin’s Ten Types of Innovation to the mix as an analytical litmus test, both to rate the odds for success and point to areas where business models can be strengthened, and NSF could find itself with a startup success rate the envy of every VC fund. 

Nerds rule!


"Startups are not smaller visions of larger companies. Large companies execute known business modules. But startups search for them," says Steve Blank. And to help startups better figure out how to find them, he offers a free online course through Stanford University called, "The Lean Launchpad." The next class starts February 2012.


(updated 3/26/12)

I-Corps Slideshare Presentations:

— J.A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews