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Corps will turn science into startups

The National Science Foundation is setting up a public-private program to help researchers make the leap into entrepreneurship by putting them through a boot camp for startups.

NSF's Innovation Corps, or I-Corps, aims to offer 100 grants a year at $50,000 each. But the money isn't the main point of the project. The key is to put NSF-funded scientists together with mentors and entrepreneurs to turn their ideas into marketable ventures. It sounds like a new role for a federal agency that focuses on research rather than revenue, but the agency's director contends that I-Corps is right in line with NSF's mission.

"The United States has a long history of investing in — and deploying — technological advances derived from a foundation of basic research," Director Subra Suresh said in today's announcement. "And the NSF mission connects advancing the nation's prosperity and welfare with our passionate pursuit of scientific knowledge. I-Corps will help strengthen a national innovation ecosystem that firmly unites industry with scientific discoveries for the benefit of society."

The program is modeled after Stanford University's Lean LaunchPad class, created by startup guru Steve Blank. I-Corps participants will go through a version of the Lean LaunchPad curriculum, aimed at helping them turn high-tech ideas into workable business ventures. On his blog, Blank trumpeted I-Corps as "a big deal" and "a new era for scientists and engineers."

"If this program works, it will change how we connect basic research to the business world. And it will lead to more startups and job creation," he said.

Foundations as well as the federal government will be kicking in support for the program. On its Q&A webpage, NSF says that the agency plans to put $1.25 million into I-Corps projects during the current fiscal year, pending availability of funds. Initial private investments have been secured for fiscal 2011 and 2012. NSF expects to run the program for at least three years.

The $50,000 grants would go to teams of three (a principal investigator, a mentor and a postdoc or student who would serve as an entrepreneurial lead), and run for up to six months. The principal investigator has to have received an NSF award within the past five years.

There are lots of other federal programs aimed at supporting entrepreneurship, including NSF's own Grant Opportunities for Academic Liaison with Industry, or GOALI. The agency said I-Corps would be a good program for researchers who have already gone through GOALI. I-Corps graduates may go on in turn to seek Small Business Innovation Research grants or other types of funding to turn their business plans into real ventures.

Blank has compared the program to Y Combinator, a startup boot camp and incubator that has fostered such ventures as Dropbox, AirBnB and Scribd. "The U.S. government is doing Y Combinator," Blank told Wired News' Ryan Singel.

NSF has gotten into trouble lately with Republicans for funding research that they think isn't worth the money, including treadmill-running crustaceans and towel-folding robots. I wonder how lawmakers and the taxpaying public will view a program aimed at making scientists more business-minded. And I also wonder what scientists will think: Is it one giant leap for turning basic research into real-world applications, or one small step away from NSF's core mission? Please feel free to weigh in with your comments below.

More on the National Science Foundation:

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