Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Carolina selected for esteemed national Innovation Corps program that fuels scientific entrepreneurship, startup growth

The National Science Foundation names the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill an I-Corps site. The prestigious designation will position Carolina to deliver focused entrepreneurship training and customer discovery research as part of a larger national effort.

Four women standing in a research lab
Judy Prasad (center left) and Mireya McKee (center right) and the KickStart Venture Services team will lead the I-Corps site at UNC-Chapel Hill.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has been selected as a National Science Foundation Innovation Corps I-Corps site, part of a larger effort to scale the national innovation network to rapidly advance solutions that benefit society.

The I-Corps program represents a major nationally accredited designation in entrepreneurial leadership for UNC-Chapel Hill. Joining a distinguished group of peer universities, Carolina’s I-Corps hub site elevates and magnifies the University’s dedication to innovation and entrepreneurship. The I-Corps program uses experiential education to help researchers gain valuable insight into entrepreneurship, starting a business or industry requirements and challenges.

The program site will be managed by Innovate Carolina’s premier life sciences startup accelerator team KickStart Venture Services and the Institute for Convergent Science. Carolina’s I-Corps program will create additional resources for innovation-inclined faculty and student entrepreneurs to foster, grow and nurture innovation ecosystems, both regionally and nationally. Participating in I-Corps programming enables startups to conduct customer discovery to learn their customers’ needs, obtain a better understanding of their company’s value proposition and develop business plans.

Customer insights speed the lab-to-market pipeline

The UNC-Chapel Hill I-Corps site will receive $620,000 in NSF funding over five years and will be open to both student and faculty entrepreneurs at the University as well as from across the Chapel Hill community and Research Triangle region. The site aims to train 100 teams locally and send 15 of these teams to participate in a national I-Corps program over a five-year period. In addition, the program will promote sharing of best practices in entrepreneurship and innovation with other hub member institutions.

Mireya McKee, interim director at KickStart, will serve as site director for the program, while Judy Prasad, KickStart operations and program manager, will provide additional curriculum support for the I-Corps site. Both McKee and Prasad bring years of experience working with hundreds of startups through the KickStart program. As I-Corps team leaders, McKee and Prasad will work together with experienced mentors and Carolina faculty and student founders to help them gain a better understanding of potential customers, partners and competitors so they can move products out of the lab and into the market faster and more efficiently.

“Serving as an I-Corps site will help drive an entrepreneurial mindset in our researchers, reduce the time it takes to translate their ideas to the marketplace, and ultimately, enable the transformation of UNC-Chapel Hill’s inventions into both social and economic impact,” said McKee. “It’s really important we have this proven program that helps startups, and I’m looking forward to collaborating and working with other institutions to iterate and optimize the program for all the different types of startups we work with here at Carolina.”

Joining a distinguished national innovation community

Carolina is part of the I-Corps Mid-Atlantic region hub, led by the University of Maryland College Park, Carnegie Mellon University, George Washington University, Howard University, Johns Hopkins University, North Carolina State University, Penn State University, the University of Pennsylvania and Virginia Tech University.

“We are delighted to join this hub of universities that allows us to learn from each other and be in a community which uses a methodology that the National Science Foundation has developed over ten years,” said J. Christopher Clemens, faculty director of the UNC Institute for Convergent Science and Jaroslav Folda Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy. “It’s impossible to overstate the value of participating in this hub and how it will benefit the innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem at Carolina and regionally.”

As faculty director for the Institute for Convergent Science, Clemens oversees a new multidisciplinary institute that promotes collaborations that enable UNC-Chapel Hill’s global scientific and creative communities to address today’s most complex challenges.

“We are enthusiastic about working with these institutions because they have strong life science portfolios and can help find opportunities for our student and faculty founders to gain insights about what works and what doesn’t work in bringing ideas to the table,” adds McKee. “There will be many opportunities to collaborate.”

Advanced analytics for fueling startup success

Also contributing to UNC-Chapel Hill’s I-Corps program is Innovate Carolina’s Patent Landscape and Market Research Service, which helps investigators assess technology, the marketplace and investment funding. The service includes custom analytical reports that provide a strategic view of the patent and competitive landscape. It also uncovers opportunities for grants and funding that innovators can use to complete research and launch new products, services and businesses.

Cindy Reifsnider, research analyst at Innovate Carolina, will lead the research team working with the I-Corps site and be a member of the hub’s research and data committee. This committee will examine the conditions and factors of effectiveness of the I-Corps program. Reifsnider and her team will contribute a research methodology they’ve developed to monitor startup information from publicly available sources, specifically by using the Innovate Carolina startups database to supplement data for I-Corps startup teams, and they will provide a control group dataset. The startups database is a comprehensive, longitudinal database that goes beyond traditional approaches used in the wider academic community for measuring the results of university-born companies.

“What’s exciting about the hub is that we’ll be able to take advantage of using more complex analytics to understand successes or gaps in supporting our startups,” said Reifsnider. “We have a great opportunity to do some additional analysis of our data – and potentially of our ecosystem – for supporting our startups through detailed statistical analysis.”

The I-Corps program can be adapted to each university’s specific needs. Carolina’s program will largely focus on customer discovery, allowing startups to validate if there is a market for their innovations. The program will also cover the basics of business strategy and business models.

“The I-Corps program is something that a lot of funding agencies see as key for scientific research to be commercialized,” said McKee. “It’s exciting that we have this program given the amount of research we have at Carolina. This program will benefit our startups by allowing them to focus on commercializing through a validated program.”

McKee and her team anticipate working with approximately ten companies in the first cohort, potentially hosting several cohorts each year. The Carolina I-Corps site aims to launch in 2022.