National Science Foundation

Government-funded report on government-funded research not accessible to the people who funded it

Photo: U.S. Department of Energy
Photo: U.S. Department of Energy

In 2013, responding to a 2012 We the People petition signed by more than 65,000 people, the Obama Administration worked to expand public access to the results of federally funded research.

In 2016, it touted the progress, stating:

“These efforts to open up the results of Federally-funded research promise to increase the return of Federal investments in scientific research, bolster the reliability of that research, accelerate scientific discovery, stimulate innovation, promote entrepreneurship, and enhance economic growth and job creation.”

In 2019, however, we’re still a long ways away from realizing innovation potential by creating a culture that defaults to immediate, open access of federally-funded research.

Case in point, a recent federally-funded grant that researched the impact of government-funded research on innovation, such as private-sector intellectual property and inventions, is inaccessible to most of the people who funded it.

The report, “Government-funded Research Increasingly Fuels Innovation,” is available for access behind a paywall under the publication’s (Science) Science Journals Default License that states the “Final Published Version will be made publicly accessible to nonsubscribers following a one-year embargo period.”

From the release:

“This research is an effort to detect, in a more nuanced way, the myriad fingerprints that U.S. federal research leaves, directly and indirectly, on innovation by others. We hope that it provides insights for the government, corporations, and citizens about where this funding goes and the downstream impact it has on innovation. And let’s not forget, that does not include the social and economic impact of federally supported research – but that’s for another day.”

The research results, funded by the National Science Foundation (#1536022), also don’t align with NSF’s own recent call for openness, transparency and collaboration.

The irony here is that it’s a government-funded report on the innovation impact of government-funded research, and it’s not open or made available for immediate consumption and collaboration.

While current standards make a one-year embargo acceptable from a policy perspective, if federally-funded research is to have optimal impact, it must be made accessible to everyone at the same time.

This particular research most likely won’t impact global innovation, however, it’s the principle of not opening it immediately that continues to foster arcane thinking of and treatment around information access.

For the taxpayers who funded this research and wish to see it, that’s for another year.

How we changed the way the U.S. government commercializes science

Photo: U.S. Department of Energy

Photo: U.S. Department of Energy

The following post is re-published with permission from Steve Blank‘s blog. Steve interviews Errol Arkilic, former lead program director for the National Science Foundation I-Corps, which uses his Lean LaunchPad curriculum to teach scientists and engineers how to take their technology out of the lab and into the marketplace.

In my interview with Errol, we discussed the origins of the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (I-Corps), how and why it was created, and how it changed the way the government commercializes scientific research.

Today he is the founder of M34 Capital, a seed capital fund that focuses on early-stage projects being spun out of academic and corporate research labs.

Listen to my entire interview with Errol:

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

The origins of National Science Foundation I-Corps

The I-Corps had a serendipitous start. Errol explains in this clip.

Errol: There was a unique opportunity in 2011 when the new director of National Science Foundation said, ‘We want to do something new and different [in helping scientists commercialize their technology].’ … He charged me .. to put together a mentorship program [for academic scientists]. We floated that around the office for about a week and said there was no way that that’s going to work.

We had to do something different. And right about that time you were publishing your notes to the Lean LaunchPad course in spring of 2011, Stanford, E245. … There was a blog post that you wrote … describing the first class at Stanford. I read it and I ran thing down the hall and said to my colleagues, ‘You’ve got to go read this.’ There was one element of the blog post where you described how you were teaching entrepreneurship like we were teaching art. You were going to give them deep lessons of theory and then you were going to dump them in the deep end, so to speak [and give them experiential practice.] That paragraph really resonated with a bunch of us at NSF, me included.

That was about the same time that Dr. Suresh said we want to do something different. It was a serendipitous moment.

Steve: …This is the first time I’m hearing the other side of it, … that you actually had a charter .. to do something different. From my side … I wrote the book [The Four Steps to the Epiphany], and while all the theory was in there, you couldn’t just hand somebody the book and expect them to do something. … We needed a way to teach entrepreneurship that was experiential and hands-on.  And much like the educational paradigm, I can tell you about it all the time, but if I actually make you do it, it’s going to stick a lot more.

The Lean LaunchPad class.. was an experiment that no one had ever run before. [Up until then] the capstone class – meaning the best class you could take for being an entrepreneur in a university – was how to write a business plan. Yet we all [anyone teaching who actually had founded a company] knew that in all honesty no business plan survives first contact with customers. But nothing else like [The Lean LaunchPad class] was being taught.

This [Lean LaunchPad class] was to me a major science experiment – having teams come in, write a business model, talk to 10 customers a week, have them present their results every week and actually be testing a series of of hypotheses.

And the blog you were reading, [was created because] I thought that the class was so crazy and different I … wanted to share what I was doing [with other educators]. And since I open source everything I do, you were the recipient of open source. I have to tell you that everybody who knew me said, ‘Steve these are the most boring blogs you’ll ever write. No one cares about a new class, and no one’s going to ever read them.’ The good news is that for any of you who ever wanted to publish something Errol is a great example of what happens if there is only one person who reads what you write. Something magical could happen.

So that’s when you picked up the phone and called.

Errol: That’s right. I picked up the phone and said, ‘I’ve been reading your blog, I’ve been monitoring E245 and said I’ve got a deal for you. I’ve got 10,000 principal investigators and they all have technologies and projects that they think might have commercial potential, and our job is to figure out a way to figure out whether or not here is. Oh by the way, there’s no funding for you.’

Steve: Thank goodness I was already retired and funding didn’t matter. … My memory of the call is that it kind of went, ‘Hi I’m Errol from the NSF,’ and after I said, ‘What’s the NSF?’ After a long pause and explanation, you said, ‘The U.S. government needs your help,’ and I remember saying, ‘The U.S. government already got my help for four years in Vietnam and they’re not getting it again.’ … I kind of remember there was an even longer pause on your end, as I’m assuming you were thinking, “do I have the right or wrong guy at the end of the phone?”

I was ready to hang up on the call until you said there are 10,000 potential scientists [who could be my students.] In my career, the most fun I ever had was working with and selling to people who were doing truly rocket science. I had to learn what they were doing to be able to understand how to sell to them … [so teaching a class for the NSF] was a new opportunity – could I figure out if we could take rocket scientists and teach them the basics of how to build a business.

Errol: And we did. And I think that the principles of the scientific method applied to the commercial opportunity is spot on. That’s what scientists and engineers needed to embrace.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

What made him call Steve?

“A consistent theme we recognized at NSF, was that a lot of the startup companies [we were funding] really weren’t practicing what we knew to be the best and most effective way of taking technologies out of labs. … What we saw were practices that any investor would look at and say there’s got to be a better way of doing it.  And it wasn’t exclusive to the [NSF commercialization] program. It was a crappy way [the U.S. government had] of taking technology out of [all of its] labs.”

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

How I-Corps Teams are selected

We started the interview process like most people – [we] asked about the idea and the status of the technology was and got spun up on the story. We pretty quickly identified that was the wrong way to go. Because really what we needed were teams that were totally aligned with one another and could work together under extreme pressure and extreme ambiguity because the ideas change anyway. … The teams that are coming together to investigate their commercial opportunity, they need to look way beyond the technical boundaries of their discipline to see if there is a business there. … The key thing is that we’re trying to take teams on a journey with us and with one anther, and some people are not amenable to change and not amenable to coaching and not amenable to advice.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here 

How the I-Corps has grown

Errol: The number is up at 550 teams [through the I-Corps classes]. And there’s scale being brought. You and I ran one, we ran two, and then we quickly identified we needed to bring additional Steve Blanks to the table and structure to put in place. We knew we that needed to duplicate the capacity. Stanford loaned us the resources to begin with but we knew that wasn’t in the long term sustainable, so while I was in NSF, we established a program that developed a structure that included a network of academic nodes that teach the course. … We brought on more schools. …

Steve: … If I remember, you and I brought on Georgia Tech, and then University of Michigan and then how many more?

Errol: The group after that is in NY it’s CUNY, NYU and Columbia. In DC it’s George Washington University, the University of Maryland and Virginia Tech, and now Johns Hopkins… in the Bay Area, there’s Berkeley, Stanford and UCSF.  … In Southern California, there’s Caltech, USC and UCLA. And in Texas, it’s the University of Texas at Austin, Rice and …

Steve: We’re losing count, but there’s a bunch of them now that started from that phone call. 550 teams; 20 universities [as nodes and another 36 as sites]; must be 30-40-50 instructors now playing Steve Blank. This kind of makes it one of the largest accelerators in the United States, probably up there with TechStars and Y Combinator except it’s a U.S. government accelerator that takes \ no equity. So, Errol, congratulations, you’ve created something wonderful.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

Lessons for the country

I think the strong takeaway is that the commercial considerations must be done in parallel with the technical considerations. It’s not an after thought, it’s not something you come in later and tack on the end. If your goal is to get the technology out of the lab, it’s never too early to start thinking who the customer for that solution is. … If you are a scientist and you think that your science is addressing human needs, you better be talking to some humans. … I think the most rewarding element of the Innovation Corps is when a principle investigator comes back and says, ‘I’m now changing the way I think about crafting my research moving forward.’ That feedback is an incredible demonstration of a significant change.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

What is M34 Capital?

M34 is a fund that focuses on taking Customer Discovery and the Lean Startup process and applying it in the venture model. We look at companies at their earliest stage of development and we believe with our capital that through the approach of the lean process and customer discovery that we can get companies up the learning curve, up the value curve, more effectively than other approaches.  …  The companies that come out of I-Corps are primed for success but they still need help. That wasn’t surprising to us. We knew that there were gaps that needed to be filled – capital gaps, management gaps, experience gaps and we saw it as an opportunity to get back out and become an entrepreneur again. … We look across the board at any company that has the discipline of customer discovery and Lean and the reason we need that is because it’s just a different way of looking at things. It’s evidence-based, it’s the scientific method and when the company has that on Day Zero, the conversations that we have are just that more meaningful. … If they don’t get it, we’re not touching them. “

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

Doubling down on a good thing: The National Science Foundation’s I-Corps Lite

edmund pendeltonI’ve known Edmund Pendleton from the University of Maryland as the Director of the D.C. National Science Foundation (NSF) I-Corps Node (a collaboration among the University of Maryland, Virginia Tech, George Washington, and Johns Hopkins).

But it wasn’t until seeing him lead the first I-Corps class at the National Institutes of Health that I realized Edmund could teach my class better than I can.

After seeing the results of 500+ teams through the I-Corps, the NSF now offers all teams who’ve received government funding to start a company an introduction to building a Lean Startup.

Here’s Edmund’s description of the I-Corps Lite program.

SBIR/STTR program and startup seed funding

The Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs are startup seed funds created by Congress to encourage U.S. small businesses to turn Government-funded research into commercial businesses. Eleven U.S. agencies participate in the SBIR/STTR program, with DOD, HHS (NIH), NSF, DOE, and NASA offering the majority of funding opportunities.SBIR and STTR program

The SBIR/STTR program made ~6,200 seed stage investments in 2014, dwarfing the seed investments made by venture capital. seed stage investmentThe SBIR/STTR program represents a critical source of seed funding for U.S. startups that don’t fit whatever’s hot in venture capital. In fact, half of all seed stages in tech companies in the U.S. were funded by the SBIR program.

The SBIR/STTR program

The SBIR/STTR program funds companies in three phases. Phase I funding is for teams to prove feasibility, both technical and commercial.

Since most of the founders come from strong technical roots, companies in Phase I tend to focus on the technology – and spend very little time understanding what it takes to turn the company’s technology into a scalable and repeatable commercial business.

SBIR Phases

In 2011 the National Science Foundation recognized that many of the innovators they were funding were failing – not from an inability to make their technologies work – but because they did not understand how to translate the technology into a successful business. To address this problem, the NSF collaborated with Steve Blank to adapt his Lean LaunchPad class at Stanford for NSF-funded founders. By focusing on hypothesis testing, the Lean LaunchPad had actually developed something akin to the scientific method for entrepreneurship. (see here, here and the results here.) This was an approach that would immediately make sense to the scientists and technologists NSF was funding. Steve and the NSF collaborated on adapting his curriculum and the result was the 9-week NSF I-Corps program.

NSF’s original I-Corps program was specifically designed for academic innovators still in the lab; fundamentally, to help them determine the best path to commercialization before they moved to the start-up stage. (I-Corps participants are at the “pre-company” stage.) But NSF realized the Lean LaunchPad approach would be equally beneficial for the many startups they fund through the SBIR/STTR program.

Icorps plus SBIR

The “Beat the Odds” bootcamp – an I-Corps “Lite”

The good news is that the NSF found that the I-Corps program works spectacularly well. But the class requires a substantial time commitment for the founding team to get out of the building and talk to 10-15 customers a week, and then present what they learned – the class is essentially a full time commitment.

Was there a way to expose every one of ~240 companies/year who receive a NSF grant to the I-Corps? The NSF decided to pilot a “Beat the Odds Boot Camp” (essentially an I-Corps Lite) at the biannual gathering of new SBIR/STTR Phase I grantees in Washington.

Steve provided an overview of the Lean LaunchPad methodology in an introductory webinar. Then the companies were sent off to do customer discovery before coming to an optional “bootcamp workshop” 12 weeks later. Four certified I-Corps instructors provided feedback to these companies at the workshop. The results of the pilot were excellent. The participating companies learned a significant amount about their business models, even in this very light-touch approach. The NSF SBIR/STTR program had found a way to improve the odds of building a successful company.

Icorps lite plus sbir

During the past two years, I’ve taken the lead to expand and head up this program, building on what Steve started. We now require the participating companies to attend kick-off and mid-point webinars, and to conduct 30 customer interviews over the twelve-week program. The companies present to I-Corps instructors at a “Beat the Odds Bootcamp” – the day before the biannual NSF Phase I Grantee Workshop.

In March we conducted our fourth iteration of this workshop with a record number of companies participating (about 110 of 120, or 90%) and 14 certified I-Corps instructors giving feedback to teams. This time, we added afternoon one-on-one sessions with the teams in addition to group presentations in the morning. Companies are very happy with the program, and many have requested even more face time with I-Corps instructors throughout the process.

The smart companies in Phase I realize that this Bootcamp program provides a solid foundation for success in Phase II, when more dollars are available.

What’s next

Currently, once these teams leave I-Corps Lite, they do not have any “formal” touch points with their instructors. Over time, we hope to offer more services to the teams and develop a version of I-Corps (I-Corps-Next?) for Phase II grantees.

We envision even greater startup successes if SBIR/STTR funded teams can take advantage of I-Corps classes through their entire life cycle:

  • “Pre-company” academic researchers – current I-Corps
  • Phase I SBIR/STTR teams – current I-Corps Lite
  • Phase II SBIR/STTR teams – develop a new I-Corps Next class

Icorps next plus SBIR ii and iii

The emphasis and format would change for each, but all would be solidly rooted in the Lean LaunchPad methodology. And of course, we don’t want to stop with only NSF teams/companies…as we all know. The opportunity is huge, and we can have a significant impact on the country’s innovation ecosystem.

Summary

NSF led the development of the SBIR program in the late 1970s. It has since been adopted by the entire federal research community. We believe NSF’s leadership with I-Corps will deliver something of equal significance… a program that teaches scientists and engineers what it takes to turn those research projects into products and services for the benefit of society.  I-Corps Lite is one more piece of that program.

Lessons learned

  • The SBIR/STTR program is a critical source of seed funding for technology startups that don’t fit the “whatever’s hot” category for venture capital
  • The program is a national treasure and envied around the world, but we can (and should) improve it.
  • SBIR/STTR Phase I applicants needed more help with “commercial feasibility”…a perfect fit for business model design, customer discovery and agile engineering – so we rolled out the NSF I-Corps
  • The I-Corps was so successful we wanted more NSF funded entrepreneneurs, not just a select few, to be exposed to the Lean methodology – so we built I-Corps Lite

NSF accelerator program brings science innovation to 300 teams in first two years

National Science Foundation

This is the start of the third year teaching teams of scientists (professors and their graduate students) in the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (I-Corps). This month we’ve crossed ~300 teams in the first two years through the program.

I-Corps is the accelerator that helps scientists bridge the commercialization gap between their research in their labs and wide-scale commercial adoption and use.

I-Corps bridges the gap between public support of basic science and private capital funding of new commercial ventures. It’s a model for a government program that’s gotten the balance between public/private partnerships just right.

While a few of the I-Corps teams are in web/mobile/cloud, most are working on advanced technology projects that don’t make TechCrunch. You’re more likely to see their papers (in material science, robotics, diagnostics, medical devices, computer hardware, etc.) in Science or Nature. The program pays scientists $50,000 to attend the program and takes no equity.

Currently there are 11 U.S. universities teaching the Lean LaunchPad curriculum organized as I-Corps “nodes” across the U.S.  The nodes are now offering their own regional versions of the Lean LaunchPad class under I-Corps.

The NSF I-Corps uses everything we know about building Lean Startups and Evidence-based Entrepreneurship to connect innovation to entrepreneurship. It’s curriculum is built on a framework of business model design, customer development and agile engineering – and its emphasis on evidence, Lessons Learned versus demos, makes it the worlds most advanced accelerator. It’s success is measured not only by the technologies that leave the labs, but how many U.S. scientists and engineers we train as entrepreneurs and how many of them pass on their knowledge to students. I-Corps is our secret weapon to integrate American innovation and entrepreneurship into every U.S. university lab.

Every time I go to Washington and spend time at the National Science Foundation or National Institute of Health I’m reminded why the U.S. leads the world in support of basic and applied science.  It’s not just the money we pour into these programs (~$125 billion/year), but the people who have dedicated themselves to make the world a better place by advancing science and technology for the common good.

I thought it was worth sharing the progress report from the Bay Area (Berkeley, Stanford, UCSF) I-Corps node so you can see what just one of the nodes was accomplishing. Multiply this by the NSF regional nodes across the U.S. and you’ll have a feeling for the scale and breadth of the program.

Glad to a part of it.

Lessons Learned

  • The U.S. government has built an accelerator for scientists and engineers
  • It’s scaled across the U.S.
  • The program has taught ~300 teams
  • Balance between public/private partnerships

Listen to the podcast here:

Download the podcast here

NCIIA is offering other accelerators and incubators a class to learn how to build their own versions of I-Corps here.

Re-published with permission from Steve Blank