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Grant turns lab rats into scientific entrepreneurs

National Science Foundation

Scientists and engineers picked by the National Science Foundation for a two-month boot camp on entrepreneurship pose at Stanford University on the first day of class in October.

Lab scientists are getting a $50,000 assist from the U.S. government to go to school and learn the entrepreneurial skills required to take their innovations into the marketplace and, perhaps, become millionaires.

"I am basically teaching them how to do eye contact and test their hypotheses outside of the lab," Steve Blank, a startup guru at Stanford University who designed and teaches the course, told me Tuesday.


The course is part of the National Science Foundation's recently launched Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program, which aims to help researchers make the leap to entrepreneurship. The first 21 teams wrapped up the two-month-long course earlier this month.

It is modeled after Blank's Lean LaunchPad class, which replaces the traditional masters in business administration curriculum — balance sheets, business plans, etc. — with what Blank calls "the scientific method for entrepreneurship."

Entrepreneur training
The course forces teams of researchers — an entrepreneur, principal investigator, and mentor — to network with colleagues and potential clients to test hypotheses about the market for their lab innovation.

As hypotheses fail, the teams adapt with what Blank calls a pivot, or change in the business plan. It acknowledges that startups usually go through multiple failures en route to success.

That's different than how a traditionally-trained MBA would operate in an established corporation, notes Blank, where failure would almost certainly result in the firing of an executive.

"This word pivot not only encapsulates the fact that you are going to be changing rapidly, it embraces the fact that we are going to do it without crisis. We are going to do it without firing executives," he said.

For example, a company called Arka Solutions, led by Satish Kandlikar, a mechanical engineer at the Rochester Institute of Technology, pivoted twice throughout the process. 

They started with an idea they would manufacture highly efficient LED lamps, but ended up with a company that uses their technology to make heat-pipe cooling systems for LED lights as well as electronics cooling and HVAC applications.

The next Google?
Before the course started, Blank thought maybe three or four of the teams would end up going forward as companies. After 8 weeks and 1,947 calls, 19 of 21 teams said they are now entrepreneurs.

None of these companies are going to be the next Google or Facebook, well-known Internet companies with eye-popping billion-dollar market valuations, Blank noted. But successful $100 million companies? 

"Absolutely," he said, adding that these teams of scientists and engineers echo the original roots of Silicon Valley, which was founded by a bunch of PhDs, not MBAs.

"The National Science Foundation has started the first incubator for science and engineering from the government," he said.

Armed with his hypothesis-testing methodology to successful entrepreneurship, Blank says the teams involved in I-Corps could attract venture capital away from overly valued Internet companies.

That should come as good news to students who stuck with chemistry, biology and physics as their counterparts chased riches promised by degrees in law or business.

More on I-Corps, innovation and science:


The National Science Foundation will be offering the I-Corps at least twice in 2012 and expanding the course to universities around the country. For more information, visit the I-Corps website 

John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.

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