I-Corps South Instructor Academy Program
by Melissa Heffner, Colin Ake, Miriam Huppert, & Maggy Deiters
Georgia Institute of Technology’s VentureLab offers custom-developed tools, training, and resources to implement evidence-based entrepreneurship programs into research universities around the Southeast. The rapid growth of the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps (NSF I-Corps) program has prompted the need for additional instructors trained in customer discovery education, both as the I-Corps Sites network expands and as the methodology is adopted by additional agencies. In response to this growing demand, VentureLab created the I-Corps South Instructor Academy to educate, coach, and support emerging instructors to deliver well-rounded I-Corps programs to teams of entrepreneurs.
The first problem identified is a lack of proficient trainers available for in-depth Customer Discovery education. Instructors must develop a feel for and employ nuance and pattern recognition to push students to do more than regurgitate their Customer Discovery findings. Participant teams must pull insight from their conversations with customers, and instructors must experientially learn how to pull this insight out of teams. This complex problem requires immersive training that includes a strategy where instructors can adapt the class to specific situations to facilitate insights for entrepreneurs. New instructors often struggle to answer the following questions: Why is content delivered in this order? How do you balance the instructor interruptions with the flow of team presentations? What do you do with a team that is not performing? The above are issues for cohorts as teams often move into commercialization without thoroughly answering these questions.
A secondary problem was discovered through a series of visitations. As one of the original Nodes funded by the National Science Foundation to disseminate the I-Corps Customer Discovery methodology, one of Georgia Tech’s key tasks is visitations to I-Corps Sites programs in the Southeast to assist in establishing I-Corps programs for faculty and students. Providing this assistance was an experiment unto itself, and it was recognized that co-teaching an initial cohort with the partner university led to (1) a higher rate of program adoption in the future, and (2) team success during a pilot program. However, this method is time and personnel intensive, and difficult to scale. VentureLab encountered a central problem through the Sites visits: How can VentureLab best scale the number of instructors across the Southeast who not only understand the content but also effectively push teams to discover business models that are scalable and repeatable?
To summarize, the first problem is recruiting knowledgeable educators; the second is finding ways to scale the number of those instructors across the Southeast.
One of Georgia Tech’s key roles as a founding I-Corps Node is the expansion of the Customer Discovery program throughout the Southeast. In 2015, VentureLab staff worked with several universities to assist in the implementation of Customer Discovery programs by providing curriculum, offering a logistics framework, and co-teaching the cohorts. This strategy allowed regional university staff to observe the delicate balance between delivering content and allowing the I-Corps team members to learn through their own trials. For this reason, each class was taught in person instead of via WebEx, allowing attendees to learn from one another in addition to instructors during team presentations instead of one-on-one consultation; however, we learned it also required that the teams were incentivized to participate, as in-person meetings require a greater time commitment. Extending this program to allow for an in-depth understanding of Customer Discovery is the proposed solution for the struggle entrepreneurs face in gaining this skill in such an important and early phase of commercialization.
Finally, future instructors who are taught the pedagogy and nuance of teaching will be walked through the logistical nuances, and have the ability to experience a cohort from start to finish.
Background on Finding the Solution:
In response to Georgia Tech’s commitment to, “ensure that innovation, entrepreneurship, and public service are fundamental characteristics of [the University’s] graduates,” VentureLab designed and piloted a “train-the-trainers” (T3) course in the summer of 2016. The two-day program introduced participants to the history of the lean methodology, best practices for teaching an evidence-based entrepreneurship course, and a crash-course in providing coaching to technology teams. While the pilot program was a successful first start as some of the practices shared were implemented by ATDC, the program’s real changes happened with the second iteration.
Key Learning 1: By late Spring 2016, VentureLab had completed two iterations of the T3 program with Georgia Tech faculty and staff: Enterprise Innovation Institute and Startup Summer Instructors. A key learning from the piloted T3 courses was the need to begin the workshop with a level-set conversation: not all T3 participants had the same comprehension of the history of the lean method, the philosophy of I-Corps, or the understanding of commercialization efforts versus entrepreneurship education. In addition, the faculty and staff had varying teaching experience with the methodology, and there was also variety in the types of lean methodology courses the T3 participants were currently instructing or had previously led.
Key Learning 2: A second key takeaway from the piloted T3 course was the need to provide instructor training in conjunction with a Customer Discovery cohort. During T3, participants expressed that some of their deepest struggles when teaching evidence-based entrepreneurship stem from their inability to differentiate between coaching and consulting. Though the T3 pilot provided simulated presentations from which the participants could practice providing feedback to teams, they left the program still concluding they were unprepared to coach teams.
Key Learning 3: Concurrent with T3, Georgia Tech was interacting with other regional universities that were interested in establishing their own Customer Discovery class, partnering with an I-Corps Node, or launching a Sites program on campus. University personnel who had a varied degree of understanding of the Customer Discovery methodology instructed these courses. Consequently, a resounding theme during conversations was a lack of preparedness for implementing the logistics of the course. This realization provided the initial notion for training that included a guided tour of a cohort, wherein VentureLab would provide instructor coaching in parallel with a regional cohort.
IA Course Format:
Day One: Content Delivery + Group Discussion.
Upon the conclusion of day one, IA participants were prepared to observe the opening workshop, from the content that would be delivered to the way the instructors would interact with the teams. In addition, the course offered several modules covering background and methodology, and set specific expectations for observing the cohort and instructor/student interaction.
Participants tracked the teaching team throughout the regional cohort
Weekly review sessions
Office hours with teams
All teaching team debrief sessions (Enabling IA participants to see the entire flow of instructor-to-instructor interaction, instructor-to-team interaction, and ask questions in real-time throughout the cohort).
Upon completion of the cohort and close of Instructor Academy, a survey was conducted of participants. Respondents indicated that as a result of IA, they felt “significantly” more prepared to teach evidence-based-entrepreneurship at their university.
Call to Action:
While Instructor Academy remains an ongoing project and further changes are anticipated as part of an iteration process, it has become clear that introducing IA participants to the broader I-Corps concepts along with specific tactics to those new to the ecosystem develops a more well-rounded I-Corps instructor. A preparatory course covering general concepts and setting expectations for the tactics and tools used during the program ensures participants walk into a cohort with a base level of understanding of the program’s goals and aims. Additionally, commentary from trained instructors is necessary while observing a teaching team’s execution of the program provides the opportunity to highlight tactics, draw out insights, and discuss nuances of the methodology in action.
VentureLab’s hands-on approach to instructor training ensures that new instructors have a solid grounding in principles and tactics before endeavoring to teach a cohort on their own. While there is certainly a gap between observing how these operate and teaching a cohort, VentureLab’s Instructor Academy program must be able to reduce the gap between the two by providing tools and materials, including curriculum modification tips for varying program lengths and tools for real-time instructor evaluation. Finally, this approach models the framework and should include debriefs on teams and constructive instructor feedback.
VentureLab, part of Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute, was founded in 2001 to collaborate with faculty and students to create startups based on Georgia Tech research. Since then, VentureLab has supported the launch of hundreds of startups which, combined, have raised over $1.5B in investments. A recent study ranked VentureLab #2 worldwide among university startup incubation and support programs. The VentureLab team is comprised of engineers, entrepreneurs, and educators with decades of experience in a wide range of industries and startups.
VentureLab is the headquarters of the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps South Node, which strives to accelerate the development of the South’s entrepreneurial ecosystems. The Node is a collaboration among the Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
I-Corps South seeks to provide consistent instruction on the principles of evidence-based entrepreneurship in the style of I-Corps. The Node seeks to provide the tools, support, and resources required to launch and maintain high-quality evidence-based entrepreneurship programs across the Southeast.