Why I love the National Science Foundation

The National Science Foundation is my favorite federal research agency. For the past six years I have been serving as a commercialization reviewer for the Small Business Innovation Research/Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) program. This program is designed to help move high risk/high reward innovations from the lab to the market by providing small amounts of early capital. The SBIR program was developed by the NSF in 1982. Since then, a mandate that every federal agency with an extramural budget for R&D in excess of $100,000,000 must participate in the SBIR program has led to the participation of ten other agencies.

One important aspect of the NSF’s program is that it really focuses on the market potential of any technology. As a reviewer, I am instructed to allocate a full 50% of my evaluation to the commercial potential, not just technological innovation. Another aspect is that the NSF has a wide vision and will fund just about any realm of innovation. The NSF encompasses twelve topic areas from advanced manufacturing to educational technologies to biomedical technologies and everything in between. One program manager I know jokingly says that he has yet to see an innovation that won’t fit into at least one technology topic area.

As if creating the SBIR/STTR funding program wasn’t enough, the NSF then pioneered another great idea: the Innovation Corps program. I remember hearing about the brand new program in 2010, just before in launched in 2011. The I-Corps program takes small cohorts of university-affiliated early stage companies and puts them through an intense 7-week customer discovery program at one of 8 eight national nodes, one of which is at the University of Michigan. The teams are each awarded $50,000 with which to conduct 100 customer interviews across the country. The results of these interviews help inform the companies of how their technologies can be used in a commercial capacity. Trivia fact—a team from Michigan was one of the teams in the first cohort that went to Stanford in 2011.

Soon after implementing the I-Corps program, the NSF realized that the teams in the national cohorts could benefit from some earlier training, so they launched a mini I-Corps series titled Introduction to Customer Discovery (ICD). Instead of a 7-week program focused on 100 interviews, the ICD program is only three weeks long and requires 30 interviews. Unfortunately, there is no $50,000 award, but there is no pan American travel, either. And now I am privileged to be involved in the Michigan ICD program. I have had the honor of acting as a mentor and member of the teaching team for several ICD programs across the state, most recently at Western Michigan University here in Kalamazoo, my home base. From the first WMU ICD program, two companies have been accepted to the national I-Corps program in 2017. Hopefully one or two of the current participants will be accepted, as well.

The WMU organizers have applied for WMU to become an NSF I-Corps site. Working under NSF nodes, sites are designated to provide localized infrastructure, advice, resources, networking opportunities, training and modest funding that allow teams to advance their technology into the marketplace or to apply for the national I-Corps Team program. The support and mentorship of the sites enable teams to learn more about entrepreneurship and how to commercialize their technologies. There is already one NSF site at Michigan Tech in the Upper Peninsula. Hopefully, there will soon be one in western Michigan as well. And I, for one, am thrilled to be a part of such an exciting opportunity.

Clearly, I think the National Science Foundation is a wonderful government agency. Not only does it fund a plethora of basic research but it is also dedicated to the commercialization of that research. It created the SBIR/STTR program that was then adopted by ten other federal research agencies. Then it developed the I-Corps program, which has also been adopted by several of those ten agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health. I love that NSF is as innovative as the companies it supports and I am proud to be involved in so many of its programs. I look forward to seeing what new concepts it brings forth in the future.

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