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National Innovation Network Holds Largest-Ever In-Person Meeting

Updated: Sep 7, 2023

In mid-August 2023, the National Innovation Network (NIN) held its largest-ever in-person meeting, its first since 2017, to discuss the state of the I-Corps initiative and new developments and opportunities for participating institutions. Convened at the Crystal Gateway Marriott in Arlington, VA, the two-day event gathered more than 200 I-Corps representatives from across the country, including faculty leads, research leads, hub coordinators, and regional and national instructors, along with administrators from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and VentureWell (VW), the organization contracted by NSF to run the national programs and other national events.

The meeting opened with an address from Ruth Shuman, Program Director at the National Science Foundation and Administrator of the I-Corps program. Shuman shared how I-Corps has grown to include 10 hubs, three nodes, 60 sites, and 94 institutions. Just this calendar year, the initiative has conducted more than 98 regional cohorts and 15 national cohorts. Shuman described how I-Corps is working towards standardizing regional programs and updating national training. She also revealed that demand for the program continues to rise—fall programs are already nearly full!

The meeting continued with a welcome from the Hub Council, which discussed current efforts to develop a scalable model for Hubs supporting evaluation and broadening participation. Barry Johnson, Division Director, Translational Impacts Division, NSF, also spoke, sharing that he would like to see more researchers take advantage of all the TIP programs and experience I-Corps more than once, to refine their product market fit.

Participants then heard I-Corps program updates from other agencies. Saroj Regmi, a Program Director for Small Business Innovation Research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) shared recent data highlights to show the impact of the NIH I-Corps program. Since program inception, NIH has supported 201 teams through their I-Corps program, which led to $403 million in subsequent funding ($232 million public funding and $171 million private funding).

Carolina Villacis, Commercialization Program Manager for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Technology Transitions (OTT), shared the DOE’s focus on I-Corps participants that address energy, environmental, and nuclear challenges, as well as the metrics of licenses and customer discovery interviews. She also shared that national I-Corps teams can receive $80K.

Jamie Ariz, Small Business Innovation Research Program Officer at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), shared the DHS SBIR I-Corps three-phased approach: phase 1 is science and technical, phase 2 is full research and development, and phase three is commercialization. DHS funds five companies to participate in NSF I-Corps each year; since 2014, they have supported 28 teams through phase 1.

Maggie Yancey, Entrepreneurship Development Lead of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) then shared how NASA is no longer the sole buyer of space-tech, and that with long term plans to go to the moon and Mars, there is real demand for new technology. NASA has funded eight teams in the NSF National I-Corps program, providing $10K for regional and $40K for nationals.

The meeting then shifted to a panel discussion about best practices for broadening participation, featuring Charleston Bell (Mid-South Hub), Ji Mi Choi (Desert and Pacific Hub), Brennan Marcano (National GEM Consortium), Deb Streeter (Interior Northeast Hub), and Aaron Cervantes (Southwest Hub). They shared the challenge facing participants who are not native-English speakers, and the insecurities they experience. Solutions discussed included working to reduce idiomatic expressions and giving participants tools to create their own networks.

Meeting participants also learned that after ten years, the video component of the I-Corps curriculum is being updated by the original animator of the Steve Blank videos, Ralph Guggenheim. These new videos will feature nationally certified I-Corps instructors and updated business model lecture content.

A fireside chat with Erwin Gianchandani, Assistant Director, Directorate for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships (TIP), NSF, followed. Gianchandani shared that new NSF programs must leverage I-Corps, as I-Corps underscores everything that the TIP Directorate is trying to do. He closed his remarks by stating that there would be no TIP Directorate without I-Corps.

A presentation from the Hub Research Leads followed. Cynthia Hipwell (SW Hub), Alexandra Graddy-Reed (West Hub), and Cynthia Letting (Mid-Atlantic hub) presented updates on their Hub research. Joe Cheng ended the session by presenting the results from his NSF-funded I-Corps research project. Additionally, Yuen Lau (NSF) and Tara Loomis (VW) reported on the status of I-Corps evaluation. Every hub now has an evaluation team who facilitates reporting on regionals cohorts. VW will announce the availability of the VW public use data (4.0), including pre-, post-, and longitudinal data.

The first day ended with breakout sessions that discussed affiliate partner institutions, the impact of TIP programs on expansion of I-Corps training, recruiting teams, and recruiting mentors.

The second day began with working group sessions that met for 90 minutes and then reported out what they had discussed. Among the reports shared, the Hub Council announced that it had chosen Jonathan Faye (Great Lakes Hub) as chair and Aprille Busch (Southwest Hub) as cochair; it nominated Stacyann Russell (West Hub) as chair and Dan Kunitz (Mid-Atlantic Hub) cochair of the Curriculum Committee; is also nominated John Blaho (New York Hub) as chair and Julius Corley (Northeast Hub) as cochair of the Research Committee. The Hub Council also shared a new priority of promoting I-Corps related research, with the belief that this will help to ensure faculty sees the value and credibility of I-Corps. Shuman encouraged the near-term planning of a research workshop for Hub Council and Research Leads to develop research concepts.

In the Evaluation working group, Jessica Fields (New York Hub) organized a panel session with speakers, Lora Stevens (Great Lakes Hub), Jahannie Torres-Rodriguez (VentureWell), and Mubarak A Ganiui (Mid-South Hub). The primary objective was to gain insights into the data storage and analysis practices implemented by each hub within their respective regions. This included discussing on how each hub conducts their own surveys alongside with VentureWell's surveys, the metrics they employ, best practices, and strategies for enhancing team engagement to complete these surveys.

Shuman closed the meeting, encouraging attendees to consider by what metrics I-Corps measures success. She described how the I-Corps community has evolved and grown since the last in-person NIN meeting in 2017 and shared how she hopes to broaden the reach of I-Corps to expand opportunities for entrepreneurship. She ended with a bit of mystery about a potential new program that might soon be announced.

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