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Running a Regional Cohort During Covid


This is an interview with Molly Wasko, Director of I-Corps at University of Alabama at Birmingham where she talks about the regional cohort they recently hosted.


How did you prepare for the UAB Regional Cohort?

This is something we’ve done for several years. There are regional partners in I-Corps South and we all have separate versions of this program. The UAB regional cohort is a five-week program.


The first step you take to prepare is recruit a teaching team. Since it’s a regional cohort, I like recruiting a regional team so we have diversity representing the region. Typically you have to recruit six months out in order to find a date that works for the teaching team.


Second, we had to redesign it to be a virtual event. This was a major pivot for us and we implemented some new tools: Canvas, Innovation Within, and Zoom. We were almost a year into using Zoom for everything, so we had some experience going in.


The third step is recruiting teams by reaching out through our network in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. We keep going back to the universities that we know have teams and a lot of teams reach out to us to ask when our next regional cohort will take place.


We have a lot of faculty members that have been through I-Corps and are making it part of their mentor program, where it becomes part of every new lab cohort that they train. They bring their students through I-Corps to teach them this process of validating their research ideas, which makes for higher impact and significance.

What was your favorite part of the program?

Getting to teach with the teaching team is one part I enjoy. Because we’re at different institutions, we learn a lot from each other. It forces us to get out of our universities and see what’s going on across the south.


Our program has a kickoff, office hours, sessions, and a closing. I really like doing office hours with each team, because that’s when you can do a deep dive into the specific situation of each team and their projects. You get to know teams well through these one-on-one interactions and hearing the progress in their customer discovery. I love working with the teams, that’s my favorite part.


What was the most challenging part of the experience?

The most challenging part is the coordination. Coordinating a teaching team across universities, coordinating teams, and making sure it goes smoothly. You have to make sure the teaching team knows what their role is, who is doing what lecture, and that team presentations are lined up and ready to go.


There is a lot of back office coordination that needs to happen for each program. This is the most challenging parts and everything takes twice as long as you think it will. The goal is to make it look effortless for the teams and it’s always worth the effort that we put into coordination and planning.

How were your interactions with the teams?

This program had teams from over five institutions across three states. One of the benefits of technology and a virtual event is that it enables more teams to participate in the regional cohort.


Teams will reach out when they have a really good interview or need advice. The teams self select to be in this program so they are usually very motivated and engaged. I didn’t see any drop off when we went virtual.


The one thing that’s missing is that when we’re face-to-face, teams have more interactions with each other. They share meals together, talk during breaks, and there is a lot more team-to-team interaction and learning.


In the future, post-Covid, we plan to offer both modes of delivery: have in person programs so teams can have that engagement with each other and have virtual events to continue to make it accessible to more people.


What advice do you have for future teams?

My advice is the earlier they start when they have a research idea, the earlier the better. A lot of teams think they have to wait until they have a prototype or they have already filed IP. We really like bringing in teams when they have a research idea. The sooner they can come in and validate their research idea, the more impact they will have. When you’re thinking of submitting your grant, that’s the time to go through I-Corps. Don’t wait until you’ve already completed your grant and are thinking of commercializing your technology.


What advice do you have for future members of the teaching team?

Georgia Tech has a great train-the-trainer program [Instructor Academy]. Really becoming a trained member of the teaching team takes training and practice. You can see how teaching teams operate, you can hear it, but until you start doing it with a seasoned teaching team it’s hard to fully understand. I like to recruit a mix of new people that have gone to Instructor Academy, so they get experience teaching with a seasoned teaching team.


It will be interesting as we move from an I-Corps node to hub structure, since there will be a lot of opportunity for teaching teams. It will incorporate 12 sites that have experienced teaching teams.


To learn more, Sara Henderson, Program Director of I-Corps South, was a member of the teaching team and shared her experience in this blog post.

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