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I-Corps Proves a Training Ground for Success, From Industry to Startup

Posted Feb 18, 2021

Since its inception in 2017, the National Science Foundation (NSF) Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program at Iowa State has helped campus innovators evolve into emerging entrepreneurs.

The Iowa State I-Corps Site was launched as a collaboration between the Office of the Vice President for Research and the Office of Economic Development and Industry Relations (EDIR). The program aims to cultivate a more pervasive culture of research-driven entrepreneurship and innovation across the entire campus community.

The ISU I-Corps Site focuses on translating discoveries that reflect the university’s strengths in engineering, the biosciences, materials science, agriculture, food and nutrition and veterinary medicine. The program enhances entrepreneurship and innovation already taking place across campus, fosters connections with other Midwest I-Corps Sites, and helps strengthen the nation’s innovation fabric.

One of Iowa State’s strongest I-Corps’ advocates is Nigel Reuel, Jack R. and Carol A. Johnson Faculty Fellow and assistant professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering (CBE). Reuel’s key research interests include optical biosensors, resonant biosensors, biomaterials and custom tool design. His work gained state and national interest in the summer of 2020 when he received a one-year Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grant from the NSF to support his team’s efforts in developing a closed, contact-free diagnostic sensing system that could be used to quickly test for COVID-19 and other virus outbreaks.

Reuel combines his passion for innovation with a strong industry background and entrepreneurial sensibility. He received his Ph. D. in Chemical Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and worked for DuPont prior to joining Iowa State in 2016. Reuel also founded two startup companies – Volvox Biologic, Inc. and Skroot Laboratory, Inc.

Recent Ph.D. graduate Sadaf Charkhabi (right) and Iowa State Chemical and Biological Engineering undergraduate student Andee Beierle attending a national medical technology conference for wound management, where they pursued voice of customer interviews. Photo courtesy of Nigel Reuel

In his time at Iowa State, Reuel supported recent Ph. D. graduate Sadaf Charkhabi as she went through the National I-Corps program with Andee Beierle (CBE undergraduate). He also participated in three separate ISU I-Corps Site cohorts with students Jared Dopp, Denis Tamiev and Nathaniel Kallmyer, and Sparsh Agarwal. Reuel shares his perspectives on his – and his students’ – I-Corps experiences in the interview that follows.

Q: From your own personal experience, working with four different student groups, how does I-Corps bring together the sometime disparate worlds of innovation and entrepreneurship?

A: “I-Corps reduces the risk of technical translation – the jump from innovating some technology in a lab to making a practical, successful product. We often have (wrong) conceptions of what a technology can do. As technology developers, we are fascinated with the technology and do not think as much about what need it can fill. I-Corps requires you to take off your tech-development hat for a few weeks and instead focus on what future customers are saying. It helps you discover their pain points. You then can return to the technology development with a sharper focus on the direction to meet that need, and then find greater success in translation.”

Q: From what you have witnessed, how do the skills learned in I-Corps make the students who go through the experience more effective innovators?

A: “I-Corps gives the students space to think more broadly about the market they are trying to serve. It gives them a dose of ‘reality’ to see what technical specifications are needed for the technology to meet a critical need, which are often different from what a reviewer might want in an academic publication. The program also focuses them to meet many people in their target industry. This broader perspective makes them competitive candidates for employment. If they attempt a startup, they can describe more clearly in SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) grant applications what technical milestones are still needed to achieve.”

Q: How does the I-Corps experience complement the academic or scholarly experience gained through a university like Iowa State?

A: “Traditional Ph. D. training instills curiosity and scientific inquiry. That’s great, but we should also couple that with teaching students how to talk to people to learn their needs – to learn if a specific technology fits those needs, and if not, how we can discover something that fully addresses that need. We train scientists – Ph. D. students – to be very technology-centric and very detailed about what they’re doing. I-Corps teaches them to put that on the shelf for a bit to learn how to listen and understand what customers’ needs are rather than trying to insert a specific technology that may or may not fit. This is really rewarding because often you uncover needs in areas that you didn’t even know existed. That’s where the real impact comes.”

Q: What is the lasting value of the I-Corps experience for students who go through the program?

A: “When Sadaf went through the national program, we had a technology that looked at wound management. The question was, ‘Is there a market fit for putting this in a bandage, and what would it need to measure?’ The (customer inquiry) findings supported doing a proof of concept, and we found that we had a licensable technology.

About six months before Sadaf graduated, she interviewed with 3M. She said that the I-Corps experience amounted to about 50% of her job interview. The company loved the fact that she went through the program, knew how to talk to customers, and was able to pivot and move her research based on what she learned during the customer research. 3M offered her the job shortly thereafter and allowed her to complete her Ph. D. with a job offer in hand. We can give the I-Corps experience a lot of credit for her securing that job.

In the three teams I worked with in the local program, Dennis pursued a business but with a different technology than the one he initially explored; Jared is pursuing a startup that’s based in part on what he pitched in I-Corps; and Nathaniel is trying to launch a business that would start in the fall of ’21. The common thread is even if you find the technology that you’ve pitched at I-Corps is not relevant, you have to be humble enough to admit it doesn’t have a fit in the market and then adopt a mindset to identify a need, and then fit a technology to that need. Every student I’ve worked with has come out of the program with strong training that they can apply in starting a new company or take to a large company.”

Q: How would you describe the experience students go through in the I-Corps program?

A: “There’s a very similar cycle that every student goes through in I-Corps. There’s the initial excitement that they’re going to have the opportunity to talk to people about their idea or technology. This is the honeymoon period, and it lasts about a week. Then they hit a wall, of sorts, when it’s hard to find people who are willing to talk to them. Once they learn how to talk to people in a non-sales, non-technical way – focusing instead on learning from customers what their needs are – things begin to click. They start collecting nuggets of truth, and then it becomes a kind of treasure hunt: ‘This one person said this; now let’s see if we can find three others to verify that.’ By the end there’s a common experience of satisfaction that comes from their idea being validated or uncovering a new idea that they hadn’t thought of before. Either way, these are the kinds of outcomes you want in the program.”

Q: Why would you encourage other faculty members to get involved in I-Corps?

A: “If you look at things from the perspective that we’re here to train students and help them become successful – acknowledging that not all of them are going to be mini clones that go into academia; some will go into industry instead – this program gives them skills that make them very hirable. This program is great if you want to help make your students competitive in the market. There are also selfish benefits. I’ve submitted many grant proposals that have included co-PIs, collaborators or industry partners that were uncovered going through I-Corps. The program’s a great tool for expanding your research network; it definitely builds your Rolodex.”