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BLACKSBURG, VA - MAY 27: Virginia Tech mechanical engineering graduate student Coleman Knabe works to secure the ESCHER robot for transport in the TREC (Terrestrial Robotics Engineering and Controls) Lab May 27, 2015 in Blacksburg, Virginia. Unlike many of the other 24 international teams competing in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Robotics Challenge, the students of Team Valor have built most of the semi-autonomous ESCHER (Electromechanical Series Compliant Humanoid for Emergency Response) robot from the ground up over the last three months. The winner of the simulated disaster-response course will take home a $2 million prize next week in Pomona, California. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Priming Energy High Tech

Through public-private partnerships, the NSF has worked to strengthen the national innovation ecosystem uniting technological, entrepreneurial, and business communities.

In today’s world of perpetual technological innovation there has emerged an opportunity unique to the US entrepreneurial business creation approach. Often, research conducted in a university laboratory yields significant discoveries including technologies, products and processes. However, the journey from laboratory to marketplace can be arduous for researchers and early-stage technology developers, as the knowledge required to conduct research is significantly different than the knowledge required to transition technology into the commercial space.

To address this challenge, the National Science Foundation founded the Innovation Corps, or I-Corps program in 2011. The goal of the program is to foster entrepreneurship and move technology out of the lab and into the marketplace as rapidly as possible. Through public-private partnerships, the NSF has worked to strengthen the national innovation ecosystem uniting technological, entrepreneurial, and business communities to accelerate the timeline from research discovery to the end market.


Jean Redfield

NextEnergy and the University of Michigan Center for Entrepreneurship partnered to take the I-Corps training to the next level. In 2014, we launched I-Corps Energy and Transportation, a version of the program specifically focused on energy and transportation technologies. The aim of the program is to provide a customized curriculum to allow teams of researchers to test the value of their technologies through the customer discovery process, then we help connect the teams with leaders in the energy and transportation industries to accelerate the teams’ understanding of the real world market needs and decision processes that impact their ability to get their technology to market.

We identified instructors and advisors who are the best in class in the energy and transportation industries, developed a curriculum that challenges university and National Lab researchers to develop a deeper knowledge of the market and customers. The intense, immersive, learning experience helps participants investigate and communicate the commercial potential of their technology, and expand their network through detailed interviewing of industry, entrepreneurs, investors, federal government and economic development professionals. The end goal is to build the research team’s capacity to move their technology towards commercialization—whether that means grant or other funding, licensing agreements or company creation.

This June we wrapped up year two of the I-Corps Energy and Transportation training program and have seen significant success among our sixteen teams, eight of which were focused specifically on energy initiatives ranging from solar to wind to storage to microgrids. One company has leveraged their experience with the program to develop strategic connections with prospective industry partners. The company submitted a successful proposal to the NSF for a $1 million Phase II Small Business Innovation Research grant.  

At NextEnergy, we continually seek opportunities to incubate new businesses by removing barriers to innovation and facilitating the building of bridges to markets and to financing. The I-Corps Energy and Transportation launching pad has added another successful cycle of startups to the growing innovation ecosystem.

Jean Redfield is NextEnergy president and chief executive officer. NextEnergy is one of the nation’s leading accelerators of advanced energy technologies, businesses and industries.


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