In an effort to boost entrepreneurship and research skills, Virginia Tech, the University of Maryland and George Washington University have been awarded a $3.75 million, three-year grant.
The universities will share this funding provided by the National Science Foundation to create a regional Innovation Corps "node," or group of training centers, with the purpose of preparing participants to produce and market their innovations.
“What’s nice about the program is that you can apply it not only to business, but you can apply it to research, personal relations, or really anything that you want to get involved in to make a real difference,” said Paulo Garcia, postdoctoral assistant and program participant.
According to nsf.gov, this program was created “to develop and nurture a national innovation ecosystem that builds upon fundamental research to guide the output of scientific discoveries closer to the development of technologies, products and processes that benefit society.”
“The idea behind the I-Corps is to provide the training and the environment to be able to transition NSF developed technologies out of the laboratory and into a commercial environment,” said Jack Lesko, associate dean of Research and Graduate Studies.
This region is being added to a web of universities also chosen to host regional nodes. The aim of the program, according to the NSF, is that the node programs will all be interconnected to produce the most cultivated outcome.
The NSF provided a total of $11.2 million in funding across the regions.
“This training platform really relies on the amount of research that can be done, which is part of why Tech is a great location for a node,” Lesko said.
Training is a seven-week long development course in which teams, generally made up of a mentor, a faculty member, and a graduate student, learn about the research and curriculum that comes with participation in the program.
“It’s called I-Corps for a reason; it’s intense and it’s really like a boot camp for innovation,” Garcia said.
Teams from across the nation apply and may be focused on almost any subject matter with the main goal of creating a business out of the production of an idea.
“We’re beginning to see more and more technical people starting businesses, but they haven’t been trained to do that,” Lesko said. “We want them to be able to not only solve problems, but ask what problems should be solved.”
The project also motivates students to do a better job of transitioning their technical understanding and research to impact society, according to the NSF.
“I believe that students need to be able to deal with ambiguity. Students typically ask in class ‘is this going to be on the test?’ and we don’t want that," Lesko said. "What we want them to do is be curious, be willing to take risks and to think critically about what’s around them.”
Lesko brought those ideas to Tech in a new way, as he now teaches "the startup class," an interdisciplinary course that requires hands-on learning and teaches practicality in the real world of businesses.
“It’s not about the execution of a business plan,” Lesko said. “It’s the search for a business model and it’s really powerful when you think about it.”
Utilizing techniques and curriculum learned from the I-Corps, the class, titled ENGE 4984, creates a course of experiences in building a scalable business.
“This is really a great opportunity to build an entrepreneurial climate here at Tech, and I think that’s the most exciting part,” Lesko said.