The National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps (I-Corps™) program uses experiential education to help researchers gain valuable insight into entrepreneurship, starting a business or industry requirements and challenges.
I-Corps enables the transformation of invention to impact. The curriculum integrates scientific inquiry and industrial discovery in an inclusive, data-driven culture driven by rigor, relevance, and evidence. Through I-Corps training, researchers can reduce the time to translate a promising idea from the laboratory to the marketplace.
NSF is developing and nurturing a national innovation network to guide scientific research toward the development of solutions to benefit society.
NSF I-Corps Team Highlights
Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Healthcare
Team: Diligent Robotics (Formerly: Diligent Droids) | Origin: Texas | Participation: NSF I-Corps, 2015
Diligent Robotics created “Moxi,” a robot that supports clinical staff teams in acute care hospitals by executing logistical tasks so staff can focus on direct human care. Moxi safely and autonomously navigates the hospital and has an arm and gripper hand that allows it to pick up things like supplies and deliver them to other places such as outside patient rooms, providing a variety of support tasks for the clinical staff. Diligent Robotics cites statistics that indicate that 30 percent of nurses’ time is spent on “non-value-added” logistical tasks like gathering supplies, resulting in burnout.
While at Georgia Tech in 2008, Diligent Robotics CEO Andrea Thomaz received an NSF research award to develop implementations and experiments on humanoid social robots. Two years later, Thomaz won an NSF CAREER award to research socially guided machine learning for robots. When her CAREER award finished, she signed up for the NSF I-Corps program in 2015.
After I-Corps, Diligent Robotics received an NSF SBIR Phase I award for $225,000 in 2016 and an NSF SBIR Phase II award for $500,000 in 2017. The company raised $2.1 million of seed funding in a round led by True Ventures in January 2018.
Andrea Thomaz, CEO of Diligent Robotics and Professor, University of Texas at Austin
“We really have taken the NSF commercialization path, starting from being funded in the academic setting by NSF. We did the NSF I-Corps program, which really set up our commercialization plan for the NSF SBIR Phase I grant. Now we're in the SBIR Phase II and we spent six months working with three different hospitals in Austin and we built some of the core technology around the interactive machine learning that allows our robots to quickly be deployed to new settings and that led to some of our first patents and was really kind of the foundation of the company.”
Artificial Intelligence, Healthcare
Team: Respira Labs | Origin: California | Participation: NSF I-Corps, 2018
Maria Artunduaga, founder and CEO of Respira Labs, a University of California, Berkeley spinout, developed a technology incorporating artificial intelligence that can predict chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) attacks. In November, Artunduaga received the “2018 Entrepreneur of the Year Award” for the inaugural “Women in IT Awards” in Silicon Valley.
Maria Artunduaga, Founder and CEO of Respira Labs
“Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to complete the NSF I-Corps program last summer. Customer discovery has been key to my entrepreneurial success as a woman of color.”
Team: Ecovia Renewables | Origin: Michigan | Participation: NSF I-Corps, 2013
Founded in 2014 by a faculty member and a Ph.D. graduate of the University of Michigan, Ecovia Renewables is creating bio-based, compostable alternatives to widely-used petrochemical-based superabsorbent polymers commonly found in a variety of products, including disposable diapers and other hygiene products, soil amendments for agriculture, and cosmetic formulations.
At the University of Michigan in 2009, Xiaoxia “Nina” Lin, co-founder and scientific advisor at Ecovia Renewables, received an NSF award to research engineering synthetic microbial communities for next-generation biofuels. Lin then won an NSF CAREER award in 2011 to construct and optimize a community of bacteria and fungi to produce biofuels.
After participating in NSF I-Corps in 2013, Ecovia Renewables received an NSF STTR Phase I award in 2015 for $225,000, an NSF SBIR Phase II grant in 2017 for $750,000, and an NSF SBIR Phase IIB grant in 2018 for $500,000. It also received $100,000 in grant funding from U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2015, and $225,000 from Department of Energy in 2016. In April 2018, Ecovia Renewables raised $1 million of seed funding in connection with a commercial partnership with SEPPIC, a French company that designs and supplies specialty chemical products, in September 2018, it closed a second round of equity funding that included $500,000 from the University of Michigan’s Michigan Invests in New Technology Startups (MINTS) program.
Xiaoxia “Nina” Lin, co-founder and scientific advisor at Ecovia Renewables
“We learned a lot from this very intensive yet remarkably effective boot–camp style program; the eye-opening and highly stimulating process was instrumental in making us decide to launch Ecovia Renewables upon the completion of the program.”
Software, Information Technology
Team: AppScale Systems | Origin: California | Participation: NSF I-Corps, 2013
AppScale Systems allows developers to migrate their apps between cloud systems without rewriting their code, saving them time and money. Companies can use the AppScale platform to deploy and scale games or software without being locked into a particular vendor, reducing both the costs and risks of cloud applications.
Developed in the Computer Science Department at University of California, Santa Barbara, AppScale is the culmination of NSF-funded research and engineering that began in the early 2000s. In 2004, Chandra Krintz, chief scientist at AppScale, received an NSF award to study automatic Linux customization and optimization. Krintz then won an NSF CAREER award in 2006 for vertically integrated virtualization, a system design technology for reducing the complexity of modern hardware, software systems, and applications. AppScale received an NSF SBIR Phase I award in 2014 for $180,000 and an NSF SBIR Phase II in 2015. In 2015, AppScale received $1M in angel funding from an undisclosed source.
Woody Rollins, CEO of AppScale
“The NSF has been incredibly valuable to AppScale. We founded the company in 2013 with a couple of founders and a professor from the University of California, Santa Barbara. I-Corps was just a phenomenal program. It made us so smart about what we were doing and how we went about building our business. We got very smart about customer discovery and market validation and the value propositions, all of these things that sounds so esoteric but are so important when you’re building a business. The NSF really fills that void. Now, we have customers in production. Our product is now ready for market. We’re starting to see incremental and escalating sales growth. All of that was due to this early investment from the NSF.”