Ivy Schultz is the Director of Entrepreneurship Programs at Columbia Engineering. She is also the Faculty Lead of the NY I-Corps Hub.
What do you do?
I’ve been working on I-Corps since Columbia and CUNY did our first proposal together in 2012. I completed the national certification, Train-the-Trainers program in 2014 and have been teaching national cohorts as an instructor since then. We run our own Lean LaunchPad program for our regional I-Corps courses here at Columbia, where I’m in charge of activities from outreach and recruitment to curriculum and program experience, designing each element with our small team.
How have you seen the program change and evolve over time?
The program has really grown since we first began. Nationally, I-Corps has done a great job of adapting to the needs of entrepreneurs and startups. The teaching teams have also done a nice job, especially with transitioning to virtual sessions. We’ve seen a lot of creative teaching styles and teaching tools take off in the virtual world. For example, now we can quickly group people; if we see teams that should be talking to each other we can quickly facilitate that. Not that you couldn’t do that in person to some extent, but now you can open 20 breakout rooms and let teams immediately forge important connections.
We’ve also found that utilizing the chat function has helped teams to be more engaged, allowing everyone to participate in the conversation. We’ve had more music, which has been fun—the teams have enjoyed a cohort playlist. Little things like that get the teams excited—it’s motivating.
Over time, we’ve looked at ways to evolve the program. I enjoyed participating in the curriculum committee; my committee explored tone and culture. We wanted to be sure that the way we coach teams is encouraging, welcoming, and suitable for different types of team members. Not everyone responds to tough love! We really explored the research around how to motivate and coach and make sure that feedback is well received. It was a very positive thing I-Corps did, to examine that.
What’s it like teaching in other hubs, outside of your home campus? What best practices have you found? What are the biggest challenges?
Every Hub has its own style. It helps to be a flexible teaching team member and adapt to others. Sharing best practices happens when you are implementing others’ best practices and being more hands on. Because the teaching teams generally do talk and are aware of each other, best practices are mostly shared. Some teams find worksheets are useful, others don’t use them. And I think the use of Slack and its various tools has been valuable.
I think the biggest challenge for participants is to come in with the right team—a strong team. It’s hard to know until you get started, and that can be tough.
Another teaching team challenge is ensuring that all teams get the support they need. The teaching team will worry about an I-Corps team that’s not meeting goals and objectives, but also will recognize that high performers also need to be encouraged and recognized. So, it’s about making sure that all teams get the help they need, whether they are doing well or not.
What’s a question you wish academic entrepreneurs would ask?
This isn’t a question, but it’s important that entrepreneurs focus on challenging their hypothesis and actively trying to prove that they are wrong. Teams often hear what they want to hear—that their technology or idea is desired. They need to really look at why someone wouldn’t want their solution. Even if it’s hard to hear that feedback.
Often academic entrepreneurs are looking at a smaller piece of the puzzle and not necessarily thinking about how big their idea could be. In the shorter term they might be able to sell or license their product, but there might be a bigger opportunity down the road if they considered the larger scale and developed it more fully.
What challenge do you think has yet to be addressed in an I-Corps cohort that you would love to see?
I think the teams are diverse and do a good job of addressing a range of needs. I see the opposite issue—often there are many people trying to solve the same challenge. For example, we see many people working on sustainable materials. That’s great because their approaches are all different. More recently, we’ve seen a lot of teams working on AI assisted technology—there’s probably too many of those!
Can you share some details about your recent work in Tunisia? How is it similar to the work supported by I-Corps here in the US?
I was recently in Tunisia for the second in-person meeting of Global Immersion week, hosted by a non-profit called Open Startup, which provides a regional hub for startups in North Africa and the Middle East. In March, they held a weeklong event aimed at connecting young science and tech entrepreneurs from Africa and the Middle East to bridge ecosystems and foster cross-regional collaboration through innovation, openness, and exchange.
The program is like I-Corps in that we are building pre-incubator programs to see if their ideas have legs. We try to promote exposure across the region for teams to meet each other across Africa and the Middle East, and bridge connections to New York. The week I was there, they had teams sharing best practices from multiple countries and sharing where the ecosystems are in terms of their development.
Tunisia is a middle range economy that investors are getting more excited about. Teams from these regions are looking to collaborate and find customers in common. The teams often have similar challenges to their counterparts in the U.S.—finding team members that are a fit, developing their prototypes, etc. They are more challenged with currency control; it’s much harder to raise funds or get imported materials.
What are you reading?
I recently completed a degree from Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. Since finishing that, I’ve been taking a break! I’m interested in international projects so I’m usually reading about solving issues abroad, specifically in the Middle East and North Africa. We will be holding the next training session in Senegal this September, so I have a whole list of books to read either about Senegal or by Senegalese authors. My colleague Chris Wiggins, the original PI for I-Corps at Columbia, has a book that came out this spring: How Data Happened. I’m looking forward to reading that as well.
What do you do for fun?
Anything outside; in the summer I love to hike with my family. We are planning to spend time upstate, in the Lake Ontario area, and will also do hikes closer to the city, along the Hudson River.