Scientists and engineers picked by the National Science Foundation for a two-month boot camp on entrepreneurship pose at Stanford University on the first day of class in October.
By John Roach, Contributing Writer, NBC News
Lab scientists are getting a $50,000 assist from the U.S. government to go to school and learn the entrepreneurial skills required to take their innovations into the marketplace and, perhaps, become millionaires.
"I am basically teaching them how to do eye contact and test their hypotheses outside of the lab," Steve Blank, a startup guru at Stanford University who designed and teaches the course, told me Tuesday.
It is modeled after Blank's Lean LaunchPad class, which replaces the traditional masters in business administration curriculum — balance sheets, business plans, etc. — with what Blank calls "the scientific method for entrepreneurship."
Entrepreneur training The course forces teams of researchers — an entrepreneur, principal investigator, and mentor — to network with colleagues and potential clients to test hypotheses about the market for their lab innovation.
As hypotheses fail, the teams adapt with what Blank calls a pivot, or change in the business plan. It acknowledges that startups usually go through multiple failures en route to success.
That's different than how a traditionally-trained MBA would operate in an established corporation, notes Blank, where failure would almost certainly result in the firing of an executive.
"This word pivot not only encapsulates the fact that you are going to be changing rapidly, it embraces the fact that we are going to do it without crisis. We are going to do it without firing executives," he said.
For example, a company called Arka Solutions, led by Satish Kandlikar, a mechanical engineer at the Rochester Institute of Technology, pivoted twice throughout the process.
They started with an idea they would manufacture highly efficient LED lamps, but ended up with a company that uses their technology to make heat-pipe cooling systems for LED lights as well as electronics cooling and HVAC applications.
The next Google? Before the course started, Blank thought maybe three or four of the teams would end up going forward as companies. After 8 weeks and 1,947 calls, 19 of 21 teams said they are now entrepreneurs.
None of these companies are going to be the next Google or Facebook, well-known Internet companies with eye-popping billion-dollar market valuations, Blank noted. But successful $100 million companies?
"Absolutely," he said, adding that these teams of scientists and engineers echo the original roots of Silicon Valley, which was founded by a bunch of PhDs, not MBAs.
"The National Science Foundation has started the first incubator for science and engineering from the government," he said.
Armed with his hypothesis-testing methodology to successful entrepreneurship, Blank says the teams involved in I-Corps could attract venture capital away from overly valued Internet companies.
That should come as good news to students who stuck with chemistry, biology and physics as their counterparts chased riches promised by degrees in law or business.
The National Science Foundation will be offering the I-Corps at least twice in 2012 and expanding the course to universities around the country. For more information, visit the I-Corps website.
John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.
Where nations used to compete to get into space, now the competition focuses on private businesses, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into next-generation spaceships. Msnbc.com science editor Alan Boyle reports from inside the rocket factories on the future of spaceflight.
The inaugural NSF I-Corps awards were announced today. The program aims to help bring products and ideas generated during lab research into the commercial marketplace.
By John Roach, Contributing Writer, NBC News
A web app that will ease the decision-making process and a hand-held device that sniffs out bombs are among the first crop of potential products from a program that aims to turn basic science research into marketplace successes.
"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 wrote.
Curriculum concept The concept of the curriculum, Arkilic explained to me, essentially trains the I-Corps awardees — all of them scientists and engineers whose research has been funded by the NSF — in a scientific method to test the commercial viability of their research.
They'll learn a framework for testing hypothesis on what people will pay for their projects, what it will cost to take to market, and how to navigate the patent landscape, for example.
"Some of them will fail on paper and that's OK," Arkilic said. "Better to do it there than get out and spend years of research and millions of dollars to figure out (the market) doesn't exist."
For those that do look promising, in turn, the project teams will have the training and mentors to guide them to success.
That could mean, for example, brighter LED screens for laptops and the ability to manufacture large amounts of the super-material graphene on the cheap.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry stirred up a fresh scientific spat today with his claim that scientists were manipulating their data about climate change "so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects" — a view that serves to highlight the differences among the GOP presidential candidates on science-related issues.
During a town hall meeting in Bedford, N.H., here's what Perry, one of the front-runners for the Republican nomination, had to say about the state of climate science:
"I do believe that the issue of global warming has been politicized. I think there are a substantial number or scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects. I think we're seeing, almost weekly or daily, scientists are coming forward and questioning the original idea that manmade global warming is what is causing the climate to change. Yes, our climate has changed. They've been changing ever since the earth was formed. But I do not buy into a group of scientists who have in some cases [been] found to be manipulating this information. ..."
The comments are pretty much in line with what Perry has said in the past. He's playing off the suspicions raised by the "Climategate" e-mail controversy that broke in 2009. That flap revealed that the most outspoken climate researchers are all too human when it comes to talking about their intellectual adversaries in private — but in the end, they were mostly cleared of scientific malfeasance (although one published graph was judged to be "misleading").
The criticisms of Perry's view follow well-worn tracks as well: On the left-leaning Think Progress blog, Texas A&M climate researcher Andrew Dessler is quoted as saying that none of the credible atmospheric scientists in Texas agree with the governor. "This is a particularly unfortunate situation, given the hellish drought that Texas is now experiencing, and which climate change is almost certainly making worse," he said.
Think Progress goes so far as to list more than three dozen scientists who disagree with Perry.
Brian Snyder / Reuters
Texas Gov. Rick Perry extends his arm toward a lab worker during a tour of Resonetics Laser Micromaching in Nashua, N.H., on Wednesday. Resonetics CEO Chris Banas is to the left of Perry, and Cliff Gabay, the company's president, looks on from the right.
The Texas governor's views come in contrast with those of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, an early front-runner in the GOP presidential field. Romney has said "I believe, based on what I read, that the world is getting warmer" and added that "I believe that humans contribute to that."
As a result, he said at a New Hampshire town hall meeting in June, "it's important for us to reduce our emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases that may be significant contributors." However, he said any measures to stem greenhouse gases should be applied on an international basis. He opposed putting a carbon cap-and-trade system into place because it would put America at a competitive disadvantage.
The Perry vs. Romney climate split may be the latest and buzziest difference to emerge in the race for the GOP nomination, but when you look closely at the candidates, you'll see other differences as well. Here's a rundown on four of the leading candidates, related to four hot-button scientific topics: climate policy, evolution education, stem-cell research and science funding:
We've already summarized Perry's and Romney's views.
U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota opposes climate change legislation, saying that carbon dioxide is a "harmless gas." During a town hall meeting in South Carolina this week, she said that all the issues surrounding climate change would have to be "settled on the basis of real science, not manufactured science."
U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas has called the concern about Earth's changing climate "the greatest hoax I think that has been around for many, many years, if not hundreds of years," based on the Climategate reports (see above). He's opposed to energy subsidies as well as government efforts to control greenhouse-gas emissions. "Pollution can be better taken care of under a private market system, under private property," he said.
(President Barack Obama, by the way, favors policies to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, but the current "climate" in Congress has severely limited any progress on environmental initiatives.)
Perry says he is a "firm believer in intelligent design as a matter of faith and intellect, and I believe it should be presented in schools alongside the theories of evolution." Intelligent design is the view that the complexity seen in nature is best explained as resulting from the efforts of an intelligent designer — for example, God, or an alien civilization. But in Perry's case, certainly God.
Romney said during his presidential campaign that he believes "God designed the universe" and that he believes God "used the process of evolution to create the human body." As Massachusetts governor, he opposed the teaching of intelligent design in public-school science classes. "The science class is where to teach evolution, or if there are any other scientific thoughts that need to be discussed," he told The New York Times. "If we're going to talk about more philosophical matters, like why it was created, and was there an intelligent designer behind it, that's for the religion class or philosophy class or social studies class."
Bachmann says "evolution has never been proven" and believes that intelligent design should be taught alongside the evolutionary view of biological change. "What I support is putting all science on the table and then letting students decide," Bachmann told reporters at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans in June.
Paul says "nobody has concrete proof" for evolutionary theory, although he acknowledges that "it's a pretty logical theory." In his view, the intelligent-design concept has more to do with personal beliefs rather than science. "In a libertarian society these beliefs aren't nearly as critical. When you have government schools, it becomes important," he said. "'Are you fair in teaching that the earth could have been created by a creator or it came out of a pop, out of nowhere?' In a personal world, we don't have government dictating and ruling all these things; it's not very important."
(Obama favors the current legal view that teaching the intelligent-design concept in public-school science classes would be unconstitutional.)
Perry is opposed to human embryonic stem-cell research, which involves destroying human embryos to harvest the therapeutic cells. But he's a strong supporter of less controversial adult stem-cell research. In fact, he was a beneficiary of such research when he received an infusion of his own lab-grown stem cells to speed recovery from a back injury.
Bachmann is opposed to federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, but favors less controversial initiatives that use adult stem cells or reprogrammed cells (also known as induced pluripotent stem cells or iPS cells).
Paul says the federal government should have no jurisdiction over the conduct of embryonic stem-cell research. He has, however, sponsored legislation that would use tax credits to encourage less controversial stem-cell studies, as well as the establishment of stem-cell and cord-blood banks.
(Obama has favored expanded federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research — an issue that has been tied up in lengthy legal proceedings. Most researchers hope that reprogrammed cells will eventually provide a way out of the moral and ethical controversy.)
Federal funding for the National Science Foundation has become something of a hot potato in some GOP quarters, in light of recent criticism of the agency from Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.
Bachmann has faced criticism from the right-leaning Club for Growth for her "questionable" vote to reauthorize spending by the NSF. However, Bachmann did recently seek to reduce NSF funding to 2008 levels for a budget reduction of $1.7 billion.
I realize I'm missing many other worthy GOP candidates, and many other worthy issues relating to science and technology. Feel free to add your comments about the candidates and the issues, but please keep the conversation civil. This isn't the place to talk about the debt crisis, or chew over the immigration issue, or handicap the horse race. That's what the First Read blog is for. Check in with First Read and msnbc.com's Politics section for daily coverage of the 2012 presidential campaign.
Update for 10:30 p.m. ET Aug. 18: Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, another GOP presidential hopeful, stirred the pot by sending along this Twitter tweet: "To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy." This follows up on The Washington Post's quote from Huntsman's chief strategist, John Weaver: "We're not going to win a national election if we become the anti-science party."
Although Huntsman accepts the view that greenhouse-gas emissions are contributing to climate change, he told Time's Swampland blog in May that cap-and-trade systems haven't worked and that "putting additional burdens on the pillars of growth right now is counterproductive."
On the stem-cell issue, a spokesman for Huntsman told LifeNews.com that the Republican supports research that involves "adult stem cells, non-embryonic stem cells and certain types of embryonic stem cell[s]" but does not support federal funding for research on new lines of embryonic stem cells. Such a stand appears to be consistent with the policy that was in place during George W. Bush's tenure at the White House.
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.
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.