Introducing Students to I-Corps Methodology
Updated: May 6, 2021
Interview with Allan David, Professor of Chemical Engineering at Auburn University
In 2018, Professor Allan David attended an I-Corps regional cohort info session led by Molly Wasko and a team of NSF I-Corps instructors. Professor David had worked with startup companies in the past, and as a chemical engineer has always focused on the application side where he can see something concrete come out of his research. For students, Professor David focuses on application of technology. That includes identifying what is really needed; students have to figure out consumer pain points to find where the technology can make a real difference.
With this focus on application and knowledge of the importance of customer discovery, Professor David realized that I-Corps was a good fit for him and his students. The first I-Corps program he participated in was a regional program with graduate students working on iron oxide nanoparticles, which are magnetic and visible by MRI machines. This means that the particles could be administered in a patient and tracked with several potential applications in medicine. Professor David says, “I-Corps was an eye-opening experience that we enjoyed a lot; we learned by being kicked out of the building and asked to talk with potential customers.” Through the regional program, the team conducted close to 100 interviews. Based on their productive experience, it was recommended that the team apply for the National I-Corps Program. Professor David and his students were accepted into the national program where they received a $50,000 grant and conducted more interviews for a total of 225+ interviews between both programs.
“Comparing regional to national, on the regional side we learned a lot going through the program. The mentorship was closer. On the national side, the funding and resources allowed us to reach customers that we otherwise would not have been able to,” according to Professor David. At the end of the national program, the instructor team asks if it’s a go or no go to move forward with a commercialization plan. Their team decided it was a “go” and created a startup company. Both I-Corps programs provided them a lesson that allowed the team to identify applications where there was a need and their system could make an impact. With this customer discovery, the team shifted how their technology could be commercialized. Their team was recently awarded an NSF Phase 1 STTR and Professor David says, “none of this would be possible without I-Corps helping identify the direction to go and [learning through customers] that this is an area of need.”
He summarizes the entire experience with, “I’m always pushing my students to participate in the I-Corps program because I know there is a lot to learn. The mentors do a great job and get the teams to go out and talk to customers. It’s great advice and important to learn about what the real consumer needs and barriers are. Getting out of the building is the greatest advice. Scientists are in the lab and dream up crazy things, pushing the boundaries of science. For those who have an interest in seeing their research make a near term impact, I-Corps is the best program.”