In a crowded hotel conference room in downtown Brooklyn, N.Y., in October, Jerry Engel told dozens of earnest young scientists and engineers to cut the “scientific crap” and instead identify would-be customers who might care about their products. Frank Rimalovski piled on, urging attendees presenting research that they wanted to turn into businesses—from bone grafts to facial-recognition software—“to focus on the problem, not the solution.”
The two men were helping teach an introductory workshop in the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps, a seven-week program that trains researchers to figure out if their academic work has commercial potential. Engel, who serves as the program’s national faculty director, and Rimalovski, managing director of New York University’s Innovation Venture Fund, say I-Corps is a departure from traditional entrepreneurship instruction, which emphasizes business plans and financial projections. The teams spend at least 15 hours a week meeting with potential customers to determine if a market exists for their products. Once a technology shows promise, its creators try to “move it to the marketplace” rather than let it sit “on shelves collecting dust,” says Rathindra DasGupta, the program’s overseer at the NSF.