You are viewing this article in the archives. For the latest breaking news and updates in Ann Arbor and the surrounding area, see
Posted on Thu, Jul 19, 2012 : 5:04 p.m.

Scientists go through three-day business 'boot camp' at University of Michigan

By Ben Freed


From left to right, Steve Blank, Rick Bolander, and Rich Sheridan address a crowd of entrepreneurs during a panel discussion

Ben Freed |

The first three-day Innovation Corps “boot camp” wrapped up on the University of Michigan campus today, followed by a panel discussion featuring the intellectual god-father of the program, Steve Blank. U-M received a $1.5 million dollar grant from the National Science Foundation to implement the program.

Innovation Corps, or I-Corps, is a program that launched at Stanford University with the aim of using NSF funding to encourage scientists to bring their innovations to the commercial market. The program targets researchers at academic institutions who already receive NSF funding, but have yet to take their inventions outside the laboratory.

The program creates three-person teams that include a primary investigator, an entrepreneurial lead, and business mentor.

“It’s a great team because we all might be sitting around the table and saying the same thing, but in three different ways,” Babette Ten Haken, a business mentor for one team, said.

The idea came from teaching practices Blank employed at the University of California-Berkley and Stanford.

“Entrepreneurships are not miniature versions of established corporations, and that’s how we were treating them,” Blank said.

“The I-Corps method is a boot camp for scientists that says, wait a minute, we can turn this search for a business model and for customers into a scientific model with testable hypotheses. That’s why the NSF loved it, because they know science.”

The teams went through an intensive three-day program at the Ross School of Business and will now face a six-week program that Ten Haken said is the equivalent of what most businesses accomplish in two years. At the end of the six weeks, the teams will come back to Ann Arbor and present their progress.

“At the end of six weeks we are expected to have spoken to at least 100 potential customers and have a business model canvas, which is basically a one-page business plan,” she said.

Some of the teams were local, while others came from campuses across the country to participate in the program that will include weekly webinars and close collaboration. Ten Haken’s team involved members from MIT and Harvard. Harvey Elliott, a Michigan Ph.D. candidate, also participated in the program. He is working on developing a sensor that can detect electric fields and predict when a shock is likely to be given.

“This technology was developed for spacecraft, for going to Mars,” he said.

“But it hasn’t been taken off the shelf for the last 10 years. We think it could be used as a lightning sensor, or for electronics manufacturers.”

Elliott has no business experience, and he said the I-Corps experience has been eye opening.

“I haven’t slept a lot the past three days,” he admitted.

“This has really been a kick-start for the commercial aspect of this technology. It’s been very intense. In the past year we had seen about six potential customers. In two days we quadrupled that.”

The I-Corps program is part of a broader effort by the university to encourage students and faculty to pursue business opportunities. Michigan has invested in an Office of Technology Transfer which helps researchers spin off inventions as well as a three entrepreneurship centers, a startup incubator, and most recently a one-year masters program in entrepreneurship.

“The Innovation Corps fits perfectly with our work in helping the nation move forward," U-M President Mary Sue Coleman said in a statement.

"At Michigan, we are constantly looking to expand the connections that aspiring entrepreneurs need to succeed. That is why we continually invent, innovate and educate.”

The 27 teams that participated in the I-Corps program are all supported by NSF funding and will receive additional funding from the foundation to support their efforts towards commercializing their products.

"Building on NSF's 60-plus year legacy of investing in basic research and spawning innovation, I-Corps embodies many of the key elements for entrepreneurial achievement and illustrates why our nation is still the world leader for startup success," Dedric Carter, NSF’s senior advisor for strategic initiatives, said.

The teams will return to Ann Arbor August 29-30.

Ben Freed covers business for Reach him at 734-623-2528 or email him at Follow him on twitter @BFreedinA2


say it plain

Fri, Jul 20, 2012 : 12:13 a.m.

All one needs to do to see why NSF would be funding such a project is read the *other* story about start-ups in today's 'paper'. Because there you'd see the business model we are focused on when we don't get the scientists busy thinking about products. Two start-ups that want to sell coupon-aggregating and discount "reminder" services (? really?!!? For 250K each our beloved SPARK is funding more coupon services?! sigh....), and one that sounds like it might have something real to sell somewhere in their model, but I think it's more about licensing rights to various things other people have developed, maybe with some novel ideas about combining them as products (hard to tell from the reporting there). If the US wants to create jobs based on actual objects, substances, technology, rather than on selling ads, apparently we *do* need such tax-payer sponsored prodding!

say it plain

Fri, Jul 20, 2012 : 3:54 p.m.

@Arborcomment, I can only presume the start-ups were presented to SPARK with projected revenue, but that *is* a question we could productively ask of SPARK and of! And okay, fair enough, puzzling to imagine researchers today not thinking about potential uses beyond their focus, but I presume here that the barriers to moving forward on that are more on *how* to begin to develop those ideas into a business plan. If we leave it to the MBAs alone (was the intended core of my observation) we tend to get mostly the "value extraction" bs represented by the SPARK-funded coupon-promo social-media phone-tracking 'innovation' businesses . I'd love to see more and more ways for us to have our scientists develop businesses that are about improved processes, objects, energies, etc. And to keep them from merely selling their ideas right off to the giant corporations that then 'own' the technology (until it suits their bottom-line to license it off) and send the jobs to the lowest labor bidders.


Fri, Jul 20, 2012 : 12:42 a.m.

@Say it, called it interesting because in this day and age, finding it hard to fathom ANY researcher NOT thinking outside the box for potential other use, and requiring tax dollars to show them the light. With SPARK, can't say - granted the concepts seems weak, but were they presented as a business model for funding with projected revenue?


Thu, Jul 19, 2012 : 11:47 p.m.

Interesting. It takes government money (ours) to encourage those in the Ivory Tower (partially funded by our tax dollars) to look beyond their cubbyhole and test lab to find that there is a big wide world out there with potential uses for their research beyond their niche efforts. Is this effort so hard that a NSF grant and tax dollars is required? Doubtful, as this is being typed on proof positive of good research (and government funding for development but without the "entrepreneurship" training) works. It's called the Internet.


Thu, Jul 19, 2012 : 11:18 p.m.

Seasoned Cit, did you even read the story? The program is funded with NSF money, which is federal funding, so no the entrepreneurs didn't do it all, it is a government funded program! But like a lot of people you are blinded by your own ideology you can't be bothered to read the article. BTW, it is tiring to see every story being used as a platform to bash the president. Can we please keep to the topic at least?

Seasoned Cit

Thu, Jul 19, 2012 : 10:51 p.m.

Could they invite President Obama to come back to town and lead a sesson on How Entrepreneurs really don't do it all themselves? I'm sure he'd be happy to wish them good luck so he can then raise their taxes.