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Posted on Fri, Mar 8, 2013 : 5:58 a.m.

Ann Arbor to host new Michigan I-Corps program aimed at commercializing inventions

By Ben Freed

The premise of the Innovation Corps program is simple: take smart scientists and add savvy businesspeople to make innovating scientific breakthroughs marketable. That equation is going to be tested in a different way as the brand new “Michigan I-Corps” program is rolled out.

The program hopes to harness resources across the state to increase the economic impact of research conducted at the state’s universities and in private laboratories.


Ph.D. candidate Harvey Elliott presented on behalf of Electric Field Solutions at the first I-Corps cohort's closing event at the NCRC.

Photo by Laura Rudich courtesy Michigan Engineering

“I’m desperately trying to make this not just a University of Michigan program,” program administrator Jonathan Fay said. “I want it to be a statewide collaboration between researchers at a wide variety of institutions.”

Like the national program, Michigan I-Corps will be funded by a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

I-Corps first came to Michigan in 2012 when the NSF brought teams of scientists and business mentors to the University of Michigan from across the country for intensive training sessions that bookended six weeks of frenzied activity.

The “teams” created by the program consist of a primary investigator, usually a professor at a university, an entrepreneurial lead, typically a Ph.D. or post-doctoral student, and a business mentor. However, some things will be different in the state-specific program.

“We’re not restricting it to university teams,” said Fay, who also is an associate director of entrepreneurial practice at the U-M Center for Entrepreneurship.

“So researchers from the private sector will be able to participate as well.”

According to a news release, the program hopes to attract 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 technology companies and venture-funded startups.

By pairing basic scientists with business mentors, the I-Corps program is designed to help scientists find practical applications for their research. Throughout the six-week program, customer discovery and business plan creation are emphasized.


The University of Michigan Center for Entrepreneurship will provide leadership for the new program, but Fay wants to involve universities across the state.

Ben Freed | file photo

"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," Michigan Technological University assistant director of technology commercialization John 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."

Michigan, Georgia Tech, and Stanford were the first regional “nodes” in the national program. Those sites will each be executing a new regional I-Corps project, along with newcomers New York City and Washington, D.C., which also will be participating in the program.

"I-Corps regional nodes are the foundation of a national innovation ecosystem," NSF I-Corps node program director Don Millard said in a statement. "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."

Michigan’s regional program will include teams from across the entire state. The first Michigan I-Corps cohort’s sessions will be held at the University of Michigan, but after that Fay hopes to move the workshops to different research institutions.

“It’s exciting because the regional program will be the sandbox,” he said.

“We’re supposed to take the national program, take the things we like, and try different and innovative things that we think will work. We will be looking for new best practices to be applied to the program in Michigan and potentially nationally.”

Initial funding for the program is coming solely from the NSF, but Fay said universities around the state will supply both teachers and business mentors for the program.

Michigan I-Corps will consist of approximately 25 three-person teams per cohort. Applications for the first cohort will be accepted on a rolling basis beginning March 11, according to the news release. The first training session will held in Ann Arbor in May.

Organizers of the program hope that eventually 100 teams every year will be able to participate.

Ben Freed covers business for You can sign up here to receive Business Review updates every week. Reach out to Ben at 734-623-2528 or email him at Follow him on twitter @BFreedinA2


anonymous hippopotamus

Fri, Mar 8, 2013 : 5:07 p.m.

This sounds like a patent troll to me.

Ben Freed

Fri, Mar 8, 2013 : 3:30 p.m.

Have you ever been a part of a startup that hadn't quite figured out customer discovery?