The National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps (I-Corps™) program uses experiential education to help researchers gain valuable insight into entrepreneurship, starting a business or industry requirements and challenges.
I-Corps enables the transformation of invention to impact. The curriculum integrates scientific inquiry and industrial discovery in an inclusive, data-driven culture driven by rigor, relevance, and evidence. Through I-Corps training, researchers can reduce the time to translate a promising idea from the laboratory to the marketplace.
NSF is developing and nurturing a national innovation network to guide scientific research toward the development of solutions to benefit society.
SCIENCE MATTERS | July 28, 2021
10 years of I-Corps: NSF entrepreneurship training program impacts the economy and shapes careers
NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan shares his personal experience as an I-Corps participant.
NSF I-Corps Team Highlights
Team: Carbice Corporation | Origin: Georgia | Participation: NSF I-Corps Participant, 2016
Carbice Corporation's core work was developed at Georgia Tech by 2017 NSF Waterman Award Winner Dr. Baratunde Cola. At the core of Carbice Carbon is the highest thermal conductivity material in the world — the carbon nanotube.
"Fundamentally, heat management is a barrier to innovation. The ever-increasing functionality (and power) of electronics, smaller and more complex packages, and the always connected nature of our world have all combined to place heat removal as one the most significant challenges to deploying new technologies. When electronics run too hot, they fail prematurely, sometimes catastrophically. Carbice Carbon is helping to solve all of these problems with our innovative new technology. Already, we have enabled new products to be launched, saved our customers hundreds of thousands of dollars in build costs and have been designed into several new satellite constellations that are breaking new ground in low-cost space exploration," said Craig Green, Chief Technology Officer and Vice President of Engineering, Carbice Corporation.
"I-Corps really helped us to refine our value proposition. We went into the program with a well-defined sense of what our initial products and markets would be, but the time speaking directly to end users during the customer discovery process taught us what features of our products added the most value and differentiation from the rest of the market. That enabled us to double down on perfecting and enhancing those features early in the product design cycle so that all of our products built on that competitive advantage," said Green.
Team: Marinus Analytics | Origin: Pennsylvania | Participation: NSF I-Corps Participant, 2014
In the last two years, the Marinus Analytics solution "Traffic Jam" has contributed to the identification of 6,800 victims of sex trafficking. While an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), Marinus Analytics' President and Founder Emily Kennedy began researching human trafficking. She was connected with CMU's Robotics Institute and, with their help, developed Traffic Jam, a suite of analytics tools that use machine learning and artificial intelligence to "quickly turn big data into actionable intelligence to help save precious investigative time to rescue vulnerable victims." In 2014, Kennedy and her partners spun the research out of the university into the startup Marinus Analytics, which came to receive National Science Foundation SBIR funding in the coming years.
Kennedy attributed her company's success to the support of the NSF: "All of this [success in assisting law enforcement in recovering human trafficking victims] would not have been possible without the support of the National Science Foundation who believed in our mission of AI for social good."
Team: Meati Foods | Origin: Colorado | Participation: NSF I-Corps Participant, 2016
Meati Foods (formerly known as Emergy) makes environmentally sustainable protein as synthetic "meat" from fungi. Meati's products are textured, highly nutritious, and even cost competitive to animal meats. Meati's process is highly efficient and sustainable, using 1% of the land, water, and energy compared to traditional animal meats. At scale, the products achieve cost parity, allowing for wide market adoption.
"I-Corps has played an integral part of Meati Foods journey," said Justin Whiteley, Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer at Meati Foods. "The co-founders of Meati Foods originally took part in the NSF National I-Corps program in the fall of 2016. At the time, the company was called Emergy and the technology was driven toward making advanced electrochemical materials. The interviews from the first I-Corps (along with three subsequent I-Corps with different organizations) led Emergy to pivot into protein production and eventually a branded product."
Metalmark Innovations, Inc.
Team: Metalmark Innovations, Inc. | Origin: Massachusetts | Participation: NSF I-Corps Participant, 2018
Metalmark is a Harvard startup that leverages patented 3D nano-architectured materials to create air purification systems for treating submicron-scale indoor airborne pollution, targeting airborne pathogens (such as viruses like COVID-19) that spread infectious diseases, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as formaldehyde, and ultra-fine particles (UFPs) that cause chronic illnesses, cancer, heart attacks, and strokes, and neurological disorders like dementia and Alzheimer's Disease.
"The transmission of COVID-19 is primarily via airborne droplets. Effectively inactivating these airborne viral droplets is critical for reducing the risks of infection and protecting against future pandemics. Currently, a technology gap exists for such solutions that are safe, efficient, and cost-effective. Our solution is well-suited for filling that gap, as well as provide additional benefits such as decomposing VOCs and UFPs...," said Sissi Liu, CEO and Co-Founder of Metalmark Innovations. "The NSF has been pivotal to our growth since the beginning, from initial validation of the technology to the current phase of product-oriented development and scaleup."
Sensatek Propulsion Technology, Inc.
Team: Sensatek Propulsion Technology, Inc. | Origin: Florida | Participation: NSF I-Corps, 2017
Sensatek Propulsion Technology develops ceramic materials derived from fused polymers for wireless sensors on the most extreme parts of an engine. This technology, led by a Marine Corps veteran, may be used for aircraft such as F-18s or Air Force One. These passive resonant frequency antennas create a wireless sensor that does not need cables or batteries to be "the eyes" on the costliest parts of gas turbine engines. The wireless sensors are sprayed directly on blades to provide temperature data that feeds into remaining useful life models to further predict outages. The sensors can withstand temperatures up to 800°C and speeds up to 126,000 revolutions per minute (rpm) to increase the efficiency of engines and determine how long the parts will last, allowing manufacturers to schedule maintenance, and saving money.
"After conducting over 165 customer discovery interviews, we discovered that not only was there a significant value proposition in eliminating $3 million outages per gas turbine per year, but there was also a market opportunity around delivering this innovation to over 35,371 gas turbines installed around the world, poising a $1.8 billion total available market opportunity for power generation gas turbines alone," said Reamonn Soto, founder of Sensatek Propulsion Technology, Inc.
Team: Sironix Renewables | Origin: Washington | Participation: NSF I-Corps Participant, 2018
Sironix Renewables makes eco-friendly, better-performing ingredients for cleaning products so formulators of detergents can make a safer and more effective consumer product. Co-founder Paul Dauenhauer, Lanny Schmidt Honorary Professor at University of Minnesota, won a 2020 MacArthur Fellowship.
"The NSF has been with us throughout the entire process. All the way from the NSF I-Corps program early on, where we conducted hundreds of customer interviews all the way across the board, not only in cleaning products, but also working with farmers and agriculture and all sorts of other different applications that we were looking at at the time. Then through the [SBIR] Phase I and Phase II process, we were really able to focus down on the technology, but also really hit the ground running, developing something that we knew would be impactful," said Christoph Krumm, CEO and co-founder of Sironix Renewables.
"I think what really inspires me is the opportunity to work on something in science, which I've worked in science all my life [...], but also to see the business impact and the potential societal impact that a technology can have. I think that really kind of completes the picture and checks all the boxes for me in terms of being able to develop a really cool technology, but also being able to see how that technology can improve human lives and improve our environment and make our world better," said Krumm.
Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Healthcare
Team: Diligent Robotics (Formerly: Diligent Droids) | Origin: Texas | Participation: NSF I-Corps, 2015
Diligent Robotics created “Moxi,” a robot that supports clinical staff teams in acute care hospitals by executing logistical tasks so staff can focus on direct human care. Moxi safely and autonomously navigates the hospital and has an arm and gripper hand that allows it to pick up things like supplies and deliver them to other places such as outside patient rooms, providing a variety of support tasks for the clinical staff. Diligent Robotics cites statistics that indicate that 30 percent of nurses’ time is spent on “non-value-added” logistical tasks like gathering supplies, resulting in burnout.
While at Georgia Tech in 2008, Diligent Robotics CEO Andrea Thomaz received an NSF research award to develop implementations and experiments on humanoid social robots. Two years later, Thomaz won an NSF CAREER award to research socially guided machine learning for robots. When her CAREER award finished, she signed up for the NSF I-Corps program in 2015.
After I-Corps, Diligent Robotics received an NSF SBIR Phase I award for $225,000 in 2016 and an NSF SBIR Phase II award for $500,000 in 2017. The company raised $2.1 million of seed funding in a round led by True Ventures in January 2018.
Andrea Thomaz, CEO of Diligent Robotics and Professor, University of Texas at Austin
“We really have taken the NSF commercialization path, starting from being funded in the academic setting by NSF. We did the NSF I-Corps program, which really set up our commercialization plan for the NSF SBIR Phase I grant. Now we're in the SBIR Phase II and we spent six months working with three different hospitals in Austin and we built some of the core technology around the interactive machine learning that allows our robots to quickly be deployed to new settings and that led to some of our first patents and was really kind of the foundation of the company.”
Artificial Intelligence, Healthcare
Team: Respira Labs | Origin: California | Participation: NSF I-Corps, 2018
Maria Artunduaga, founder and CEO of Respira Labs, a University of California, Berkeley spinout, developed a technology incorporating artificial intelligence that can predict chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) attacks. In November, Artunduaga received the “2018 Entrepreneur of the Year Award” for the inaugural “Women in IT Awards” in Silicon Valley.
Maria Artunduaga, Founder and CEO of Respira Labs
“Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to complete the NSF I-Corps program last summer. Customer discovery has been key to my entrepreneurial success as a woman of color.”
Team: Ecovia Renewables | Origin: Michigan | Participation: NSF I-Corps, 2013
Founded in 2014 by a faculty member and a Ph.D. graduate of the University of Michigan, Ecovia Renewables is creating bio-based, compostable alternatives to widely-used petrochemical-based superabsorbent polymers commonly found in a variety of products, including disposable diapers and other hygiene products, soil amendments for agriculture, and cosmetic formulations.
At the University of Michigan in 2009, Xiaoxia “Nina” Lin, co-founder and scientific advisor at Ecovia Renewables, received an NSF award to research engineering synthetic microbial communities for next-generation biofuels. Lin then won an NSF CAREER award in 2011 to construct and optimize a community of bacteria and fungi to produce biofuels.
After participating in NSF I-Corps in 2013, Ecovia Renewables received an NSF STTR Phase I award in 2015 for $225,000, an NSF SBIR Phase II grant in 2017 for $750,000, and an NSF SBIR Phase IIB grant in 2018 for $500,000. It also received $100,000 in grant funding from U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2015, and $225,000 from Department of Energy in 2016. In April 2018, Ecovia Renewables raised $1 million of seed funding in connection with a commercial partnership with SEPPIC, a French company that designs and supplies specialty chemical products, in September 2018, it closed a second round of equity funding that included $500,000 from the University of Michigan’s Michigan Invests in New Technology Startups (MINTS) program.
Xiaoxia “Nina” Lin, co-founder and scientific advisor at Ecovia Renewables
“We learned a lot from this very intensive yet remarkably effective boot–camp style program; the eye-opening and highly stimulating process was instrumental in making us decide to launch Ecovia Renewables upon the completion of the program.”
Software, Information Technology
Team: AppScale Systems | Origin: California | Participation: NSF I-Corps, 2013
AppScale Systems allows developers to migrate their apps between cloud systems without rewriting their code, saving them time and money. Companies can use the AppScale platform to deploy and scale games or software without being locked into a particular vendor, reducing both the costs and risks of cloud applications.
Developed in the Computer Science Department at University of California, Santa Barbara, AppScale is the culmination of NSF-funded research and engineering that began in the early 2000s. In 2004, Chandra Krintz, chief scientist at AppScale, received an NSF award to study automatic Linux customization and optimization. Krintz then won an NSF CAREER award in 2006 for vertically integrated virtualization, a system design technology for reducing the complexity of modern hardware, software systems, and applications. AppScale received an NSF SBIR Phase I award in 2014 for $180,000 and an NSF SBIR Phase II in 2015. In 2015, AppScale received $1M in angel funding from an undisclosed source.
Woody Rollins, CEO of AppScale
“The NSF has been incredibly valuable to AppScale. We founded the company in 2013 with a couple of founders and a professor from the University of California, Santa Barbara. I-Corps was just a phenomenal program. It made us so smart about what we were doing and how we went about building our business. We got very smart about customer discovery and market validation and the value propositions, all of these things that sounds so esoteric but are so important when you’re building a business. The NSF really fills that void. Now, we have customers in production. Our product is now ready for market. We’re starting to see incremental and escalating sales growth. All of that was due to this early investment from the NSF.”