What is NSF I-corp and how is it beneficial to participate in before SBIR?

  • September 16, 2020

What is NSF I-corp?

The National Science Foundation (NSF) created the Innovation Corps (I-Corps™) program to help hone business and commercialization skills in those participating in research and development of products and ideas that align with NSF industry focus. The program uses experiential education to help researchers develop and practice their business and entrepreneurship skills. Participants will gain hands-on experience in the field of customer discovery, commercialization, and pitching their product. NSF designed I-corp for participants in the pre-company stageNFS designed. NSF designed I-Corps as a result of analyzing data in 2011. They discovered that many NSF SBIR awardees who received funding were failing as businesses. While they had no problem developing their innovations and overall made successful products, most lacked the knowledge and experience to commercialize successfully. NSF developed the I-Corps program for this reason. Data supports that I-Corps graduates who go on to receive an NSF SBIR award are in general better prepared for commercialization. These graduates have a higher success rate in terms of revenue than their peers who did not attend I-Corps.

Program Details

The nine-week NSF I-Corps program offers important education and experience to innovators, however, it comes at the price of a steep time commitment. NSF I-Corps teams are required to provide a mock sales pitch to 10-15 potential customers a week and report on the experience in addition to attending the classes. Teams of three to include an entrepreneurial lead, technical lead, and the NSF I-Corps mentor will each receive up to $2,500 in grant funding to conduct market research and customer discovery. Teams will attend classes, conduct interviews on potential customers, and present their pitches to peers and mentors. Programs take place at universities across the country

What is the Benefit?

There are several benefits to attending an I-Corp Program. The first is that it offers the opportunity to learn valuable commercialization skills that will serve participants well in the future as they bring their product to market. A second benefit involves providing evidence to NSF reviewers that you and your team have relevant experience to bring your innovation to market if offered funding. Increasing a team’s chances to win an SBIR award is perhaps the most beneficial aspect of the program.

NSF reviewers take many things into account when awarding a proposal. One aspect is wether or not the team has relevant experience in commercialization. It is not enough to simply have a great innovation. Funders want to see SBIR applicants who can demonstrate their ability to sell products successfully. I-Corps participaton demonstrates that team members have the necessary experience and skills to be successful in generating revenue.

Networking is another benefit of participating in NSF I-Corps programming. Through participation, teams will meet mentors and peers that can offer valuable insights or networking connections.

If you are considering applying for an NSF SBIR award it may be worthwhile to attend NSF I-Corps prior to submitting a proposal. It will offer valuable insight into the marketing component of research and development and showing reviewers that you and your team have such relevant experience may increase your chances of being awarded.


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