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Week of March 18, 2013

Entrepreneurship program's goal is more state tech startups

A new entrepreneurial training program for inventors in Michigan aims to fast-track technologies to market and boost the economic impact of research conducted in the state.

Launching this spring, the Michigan I-Corps program will help researchers from across the state identify and assess potential applications and business opportunities for their technologies.

Though designed to equip technologists with a better understanding of the commercialization process, program coordinators predict Michigan I-Corps will have a significant positive impact on the state’s entrepreneurial climate and economic performance.

“The Michigan economy depends on the ability of residents to reinvent the future through innovation and entrepreneurship,” said Jonathan Fay, associate director of entrepreneurial practice at the Center for Entrepreneurship, which will administer the program. “In addition to strengthening early-stage technology startups, we believe the program will activate and integrate the state’s entrepreneurial and researcher communities, and draw C-level talent back to Michigan to fund and staff exciting new ventures.”

Michigan I-Corps is modeled after the National Science Foundation’s National I-Corps program. In 2012, U-M became one of three nodes selected by NSF to administer the national program to entrepreneurial faculty from across the country. U-M also received $1.5 million from NSF to administer the Michigan I-Corps.

“I-Corps regional nodes are the foundation of a national innovation ecosystem,” said Don Millard, NSF I-Corps node program director. “They expand our reach, bringing innovation, education and expertise to faculty and students that are pursuing commercialization efforts. We anticipate that the regional nodes will provide valuable feedback to the programs that support the advancement of our nation’s basic research and development portfolio.”

Similar to the national program, Michigan I-Corps cohorts will consist of approximately 25 teams, each with three members: a principal investigator (or senior executive), entrepreneurial lead (or product manager) and industry mentor.

The statewide program will leverage the existing I-Corps curriculum, which focuses on customer discovery and business model generation, but will supplement it with modules on business basics, intellectual property, and entrepreneurship ownership and operations. A team of local serial entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and experienced entrepreneurial educators will lead workshops.

One major difference between the national and regional programs is that applicants to Michigan I-Corps need not be academic researchers working on an NSF-funded technology. Any Michigan-based technologist, regardless of academic affiliation or funding source, is eligible to apply. Program coordinators are recruiting teams from Michigan colleges and universities, such as Michigan State, Michigan Tech, Western Michigan, Wayne State, Grand Valley State and U-M, as well as from innovative technology companies and startups funded by venture capitalists.

“If you’ve developed a unique, cutting-edge technology but you’re not sure what market to go after or what the business model should be, this program will save two years of your life by giving you those answers in seven weeks,” Fay said.

The first two Michigan I-Corps sessions will be in Ann Arbor, but the plan is for subsequent sessions to take place in different locations around the state to make the program accessible to as many Michigan entrepreneurs as possible. Organizers hope the program can train 100 teams each year.

The first session will be in May with three days of onsite training. It culminates in June with a two-day storytelling workshop and demo day. In between, participants attend online lectures, conduct outreach to potential customers, blog about their progress and receive extensive mentorship and coaching from the teaching team.

John Diebel, assistant director of technology commercialization at Michigan Tech, has been through the National I-Corps program twice as an industry mentor. He says he believes I-Corps is a game changer not just for the participating teams, but for the entire field of technology transfer.

“Until they’ve been through the customer discovery process, our faculty cannot imagine how much more there is to be learned about transforming their technology into a business,” Diebel said. “I am going to be very surprised if 10 or more years from now we cannot trace a core change in technology transfer back to the I-Corps methodology instilled in our young researchers as they mature in their careers.”

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