Talking about Innovation Corps and the CSU I-Corps Site

On Monday and Tuesday, the CSUPERB Faculty Consensus Group (FCG) and Strategic Planning Council (SPC) met to plan out the program details for academic year 2014-2015.  We had packed agendas, so there wasn’t much wiggle room for wide-ranging discussions about program news (always frustrating to academic scientists!).

But when I re-introduced the new CSU I-Corps Site program – the group wanted to stop, talk, ponder and learn.  Most of the FCG representatives knew we submitted a proposal but this was our first set of meetings since the award was made. We used NCIIA’s 3-minute video to introduce I-Corps to the group, but there were many more questions than the video could answer or we could address in the time allotted.

So imagine my delight to find a new 30-minute interview with Steve Blank on Mendels Pod. As readers of this blog might know, Steve Blank is the architect of the original Lean LaunchPad course at Stanford and has worked closely with NSF and NIH to create a National Innovation Network around the I-Corps Nodes, Sites and Teams.  We’ve already added the video to our Resources page at the CSU I-Corps Web Portal and encouraged the SPC members to watch.  In my opinion the video answers most of the questions asked at Monday and Tuesday’s meetings.

There are many pundits, thought-leaders and educators thinking about (bio)technology commercialization these days – as are the FCG and SPC.  As we kicked off our strategic Tagxedo_FCG_WordCloud_080414planning process, we asked the campus representatives to tell us what issues CSUPERB needs to pay attention to 2015-2018.  Industry was a prominent feature of the resulting word cloud (blue figure to the left; click to zoom in), as were interdisciplinary, partnerships and collaboration.

Reinforcing this convergence of thought, my inbox today included a Notice Of Request For Information from the U.S. administration looking to inform a new “Strategy for American Innovation.” The notice calls out “the convergence of biology, the physical sciences, and engineering; and the emergence of human-centered design” as an “innovation trend.”  As the black and white figure below (taken from this new report from NSF; click on the chart to zoom in) shows, biotechnology and pharmaceutical extramural industry R&Dcompanies depend heavily on academic researchers and external partners, compared to other industries.  These industries represent one “customer” for biotechnology ideas academic researchers might have.  This is a big shift in thinking for PIs trained to see funding agencies as their sole “customers.” The FCG and SPC think CSUPERB needs to support faculty and students interested in partnering to provide solutions for customer markets and global needs, however those “pulls” might be defined.

The I-Corps curriculum and program pushes researchers “out of the building” to talk with unfamiliar customers and industry experts. This outward-facing, experiential learning process aims to teach researchers how to find customers lean vs designwho need their expertise and ideas to solve real, “painful” problems.  Blank and others hope evidence-based entrepreneurship can make the research and development process more efficient and capable of fueling a national “innovation strategy.” A ‘customer focus’ is not only a culture change on university campuses, it’s a change in how start-up companies, corporations and management faculty think about innovation and product development (zoom in on the figure here; sourced from this Steve Blank blog post).

If Steve Blank’s 30-minute video doesn’t give you enough information to imagine what the customer discovery process might be like, the CSU I-Corps program team (me, along with Jay Chandler and Shannon Palka, the new VISTA members helping us ramp up student outreach) recommends reading All In Startup, by Diana Kander.  It’s a rip-snorting evidence-based entrepreneurship instructional text masquerading as a summer novel.  I finished the book in round-trip flights from San Diego to San Francisco last week.

So far the CSU I-Corps has made two microgrants to student-led teams working on patient solutions.  By the September 8th deadline, we’re also hoping to see applications from agricultural researchers, environmental scientists and basic researchers interested in exploring commercialization pathways.  We know there are creative, curious researchers across the CSU capable of solving societal problems.  We hope CSU I-Corps can help them figure out how.

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    About Susan Baxter

    I'm the executive director of CSUPERB and the editor of this blog. Over my career, I've worked with teams to formulate new herbicide products, to figure out how transcription factors work in combination, to discover protein targets for new diabetes treatments, and to develop software for human population genetics studies. I started a biotechnology career because a couple of companies in Richmond, Virginia, offered me summer internships. Since then I’ve worked in major corporations, small start-ups, research institutions and academia. Now I'm working with CSUPERB, funding promising CSU students and faculty, and supporting biotechnology education and research across the 23 CSU campuses. It is a personal mission of mine to smash the myth of "the right academic pedigree." Biotechnology changes so rapidly that it is extremely limiting to ask students to chart an exact career path, focus on a particular technique, or build a defined technical skill-set. My career advice? Stay agile by keeping your mind open, exploring your own interests, and working alongside excellent colleagues on hard problems.

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