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Photo of Dr. Subra Suresh

Dr. Subra Suresh
National Science Foundation

Talking Points on
The National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps
To Strengthen the Impact of Scientific Discoveries

July 28, 2011

Photo by Sandy Schaeffer

A video of the NSF Innovation Corps (I-Corps) announcement is available.

Welcome, and thank you for coming . . . .

The relationship between technological innovation and fundamental research is well established. In fact, basic research, with its long-term perspective accompanied by a strong emphasis on disciplinary excellence and multi-disciplinary interactions, is a necessary foundation for a successful innovation ecosystem.

The role of innovation in ensuring national security, creating high-paying jobs, and fueling our nation's long-term economic prosperity is also well understood. This critical role is being documented in increasing detail, including through initiatives such as NSF's Science of Science & Innovation Policy.

Through its world-renowned merit-review process, NSF funds the best ideas and the best people in all fields of science and engineering within a highly competitive environment. NSF-funded research has multiple flavors: (1) Intellectually driven pursuits of scientific knowledge by individual researchers who mold and shape scientific disciplines and create new ones; (2) Multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional, and multi-national efforts that probe complex research questions; and (3) Projects and activities that strategically link fundamental research to address specific challenges that directly impact societal needs. This last type of research addresses problems that fall in what is known as Pasteur's quadrant.

It is clear that despite various legislative, policy, and other incentives, migrating discoveries and innovations from the bench and field to the contexts that could capitalize on their full significance eludes us more than is necessary or desirable.

To help build a national "culture of innovation" and ensure our country's leadership in the global economy, we require sustained investment in research. We also require skillful and deliberate catalyzing of the ecosystem so that scientific discoveries have the potential to achieve greater impact. A fine-tuned, nationally cultivated "innovation ecosystem" could even help frame novel research questions.

Within the context of NSF's nearly $6-billion annual investment in fundamental scientific research, one can ask many questions related to innovation:

  1. Given that our primary focus has been, and will continue to be, on basic scientific research, how can we best identify and nurture those NSF-funded discoveries that have the potential for significant impact?

  2. NSF has tremendous scale, scope, and reach in knowledge creation for the nation and for the world. What new mechanisms can be created to help strengthen our nation's innovation ecosystem so that the vast majority of institutions that currently are not part of such an ecosystem can better realize the potential of scientific research? How can we network NSF PIs -- who produce path-breaking scientific discoveries -- with the movers and shakers within the technology, venture, business, and entrepreneur communities?

  3. We have received significant community calls for action. In fact, Presidents of more than 100 Universities that are members of APLU recently signed a letter expressing their commitment to foster greater innovation on their campuses. How can NSF work with and support our universities to more effectively realize the potential of scientific research?

  4. How, in a timely fashion, do we pilot new ideas that enable NSF to develop nimble, efficient, and new mechanisms whereby great ideas that emerge from scholarly scientific work can be further explored for the development of novel technologies, products, and processes?

By virtue of its mission and history, NSF is obliged to be a driver of this culture of innovation. So, today I announce a new public–private partnership that will support our research community in transforming scientific discoveries into useful technologies, products, and processes.

The NSF Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program that I am unveiling now aligns well with NSF's strategic plan by networking the range of communities that play complementary roles in the innovation process and that are essential to ensuring the impact of NSF investments.

NSF I-Corps will create a new national network of scientists, engineers, innovators, business leaders, and entrepreneurs. It will help strengthen our national innovation ecosystem.

Innovation Corps awards will help to strategically identify nascent science and engineering discoveries, and will leverage NSF's investment in basic research for technology innovation.

Universities and academic institutions will be key partners in the I-Corps national network.

Members of the private sector will provide critical support by sharing knowledge and experience. These technology developers, business leaders, venture capitalists, and experienced entrepreneurs will serve as volunteer I-Corps mentors. These mentors will become valuable nodes in a transparent network of expertise. This network will operate to enhance awardee ability to advance scientific results into potentially successful technologies.

The I-Corps program will initially support up to 100 projects annually, at $50,000 each, for up to six months.

I-Corps will also provide students with opportunities to learn about and participate in the process of transforming scientific and engineering discoveries into useful technologies.

The press release and FAQs posted on the website provide additional information, but I want to emphasize some important details:

  1. NSF's core mission is to fund basic research in all fields of science and engineering. I-Corps supports this mission by helping to transform scientific output into technological innovation.

  2. I-Corps will leverage existing funding for Partnerships for Innovation, Accelerating Innovation Research, Engineering Research Centers, Science and Technology Centers, and SBIR/STTR.

  3. Support will also come from our private-sector partners and regional partners, including universities, industries, venture capitalists, and nonprofits. The partnership with universities will also contribute to the development of novel pedagogical tools.

  4. The essence of I-Corps is to Identify, Nurture, and Link.

  5. NSF I-Corps will help create a new network that will strategically connect NSF-funded scientists and innovators to the national innovation ecosystem.

  6. Given NSF's uniquely broad scope and bandwidth across all science and engineering research, Innovation Corps could also serve as a data collection resource. This will increase our understanding of the connection between fundamental research and innovation.

NSF is pleased to be working with the Deshpande Foundation and the Kauffman Foundation as founding members of the I-Corps public-private partnership.

The Deshpande Foundation has been a strong supporter of innovation as a catalyst for positive change. Their support of I-Corps is their first partnership with NSF and a testament to the potential impact of the effort.

The Kauffman Foundation has a history devoted to the support of entrepreneurship and entrepreneurship education, and their participation in I-Corps continues a rich relationship with NSF.

We are proud to share this moment and this effort with such celebrated partners, and to work with them to help strengthen the national innovation ecosystem.

NSF participation includes every Directorate and NSF's Office of Cyberinfrastructure. The structure of I-Corps mirrors my vision of OneNSF, working together seamlessly in well-integrated and efficient ways across organizational and disciplinary boundaries.

I thank the community and many of you in this room for providing critical input, guidance and support as we formulated and designed I-Corps. My NSF colleagues and I look forward to working with you as we further develop and shape the NSF I-Corps as a key contributor to our nation's innovation ecosystem.

Thank you.