UMass Amherst has a history of science innovation. During the First World War, when food was scarce, campus horticulturists taught students and homemakers the technology of food preservation. Fast-forward a century, and revolutionary ideas are flowing from campus labs: from genetically engineered trees that can capture more carbon dioxide, to the harnessing of a novel bacteria that generates electricity out of thin air (see previous article).
These revolutionary ideas are just a sample of technologies born from academic research. Yet the process of spinning technologies out of labs and developing them into products and services that people want and need is not an easy one.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) I-Corps site program is designed to help. I-Corps awards funding to select universities such as UMass Amherst to engage STEM faculty and students in team-based early-stage technology commercialization experiential training. Sites provide advice, training, and modest funding to enable teams to explore real-world needs and to prepare for the National I-Corps Teams program.
“This is technology innovation training specifically for STEM researchers,” says Ken Carter, principal investigator of the I-Corps site program and UMass Amherst professor of polymer science and engineering. Carter says having a site adds an important STEM-focused element to the campus’s innovation ecosystem. His motivation to make UMass Amherst an I-Corps site stems from his own experience in a 2016 National I-Corps Teams program, which he says was “eye-opening” and instrumental in helping to bring his team’s anti-fogging technology, FogKicker, to market.
The campus received its site award in October 2018 and quickly created customized training that is unique to the needs of the UMass Amherst community. The program has already served more than 180 faculty, students, and staff, says Karen Utgoff, UMass Amherst I-Corps site director. With Carter and co-principal investigators Professor Buju Dasgupta (psychological and brain sciences) and Burnley Jaklevic, PhD (director of UMass Amherst Technology Transfer Office), they created a program that supports individuals and teams as they start to test the waters of innovation.
Warm-Up, Jump-Start, Rev-Up
The three-part program starts with a 90-minute Innovators Warm-Up, which provides a brief introduction to university-based innovation, technology commercialization, and the Lean Startup methodology.
Part two is the Innovator’s Jump-Start, which provides hands-on experience with the I-Corps approach and the scientific method applied to technology commercialization. The training is focused on customer discovery and getting participants out of their comfort zones to interview 10 potential customers. The interview process is a critical piece of the I-Corps training, says Utgoff. “It helps entrepreneurs to understand customer needs. Teams are able to test their assumptions and pivot based on lessons learned. Once complete, participants are prepared to go on to the National I-Corps program.”
The third part of the program, the Innovator’s Rev-Up, is self-paced and offers mini-grants. Participants work directly with Utgoff to do 20 more interviews and to deepen their understanding of customer needs.
Once COVID-19 hit, the I-Corps team had to re-think the Jump-Start training. “Before COVID, the emphasis was on face-to-face interviews. You had to be in the room with the person,” says Utgoff. With safety protocols changing so quickly, the time was right to try things virtually. Utgoff, who was an adjunct instructor for the first all-virtual national program, worked with the local team to create an entirely virtual program. “We learned that video interviews work well, but we had to adjust our training to incorporate them,” she says. Building on these initial experiences, Carter secured supplemental funding from the NSF to pursue e-distribution of the I-Corps training models. The team will put the supplemental funding to work to build tools to make the program stronger and more impactful, no matter what the future holds in terms of social distancing.
Reflecting Diversity and Inclusion
Another special aspect of the UMass Amherst program is its commitment to diversity and inclusion. The team embraced the university’s diversity and inclusion mission to build training designed to address both aspects through emphasis on overcoming blind spots, with respect to interview dynamics and identification of potential customers.
“We are training people to be conscious of overlooked markets so that they are thinking about those markets from the get-go. We are raising awareness of blind spots that both interviewers and interviewees have, including about ethnicity and gender, which can be really important when you are talking about how people see the entrepreneur,” says Utgoff.
Co-principal investigator Buju Dasgupta, a professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and founding director of the campus’s Institute of Diversity Sciences, is the chief architect of this part of the curriculum. Dasgupta’s own research focuses on implicit bias, making her a natural fit for I-Corps diversity and equity training.
“A really important part of our I-Corps program is to attract greater diversity of students and faculty into innovation and entrepreneurial training,” says Dasgupta. The image of an entrepreneur as male and typically White or Asian may keep women and people of color away from innovation training because they don’t see themselves fit that mold, she adds.
By conducting research in collaboration with economics associate professor Ina Ganguli, Dasgupta and the team are learning that many more women are attracted to I-Corps training when it is described as a launch pad to develop innovative ideas motivated by social good instead of being motivated by purely commercial interests. “Consistent with other research, this suggests that women’s career-related decisions are often driven by social impact. Having an opportunity to satisfy that motivation brings more people into innovation and entrepreneurship,” says Dasgupta.
When asked about lessons learned as the program wraps up its second year, Utgoff says, “We want to build programs that prepare people for the national I-Corps competition, but we also want to have a program that is really accessible to STEM researchers, social science researchers, anyone who has an idea for commercializing research. The STEM researchers are our sweet spot, but we are also mindful that there’s a lot of great STEM research going on beyond the traditional STEM departments. We want to hear from them. We want to help them because even if our program isn’t a good fit, it’s highly likely we can direct them to another program that is."