Imperial’s I-Corps programme

Aside

Imperial’s I-Corps programme gets scientists to develop potential applications of their work The I-Corps programme, now widely adopted in the US, has made slow progress in the UK. But there is a more drastic alternative.

 Next up: Learning with and from others A programme of mutual learning that brings people together who can help one another – ideal for incubators, innovation centres etc., and easy to set up and run. Then: The frightening nature of intangible assets

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 I-Corps is a programme designed to promote the development of potential applications of scientific work towards commercialisation. Instigated by Innovate UK, and run at universities, it is based on Steve Blank’s I-Corps programme in the US. (1,2)

The objective of this 12-week programme at Imperial, ‘Techcelerate’, for a dozen postdocs, is to take their work one or more step nearer to commercialisation, by focusing on specifically on the customer development section of the Business Model Canvas.

The central feature of the programme is the requirement that participants meet one hundred experts in their field over the course of the 12 weeks – people who can help them to make a real-world impact with their work.

Conceived in 2014, Steve Blank’s I-Corps (Innovation Corps) was a nine-week Boot Camp designed to teach business skills to entrepreneurial scientists in technology-based startups – that has since been rolled out for biomedical firms as part of an experiment by the US National Institutes of Health, and has been widely adopted by many other agencies in the US.

Nineteen teams formed I-Corp’s first cohort. ‘Each morning was spent presenting, and then re-presenting the ten-minute team pitches. Each afternoon, the teams raced to interview experts in their fields, then reported back for more workshops. Nights were filled with class readings, homework and preparations for the next day’s presentations and interviews.’

The interviews are central to the process: they had to talk face-to-face to scientists, pharma company reps, regulators, doctors, billing specialists and more – essentially any person with expertise in what it takes for companies to get their products to patients and get paid.

Imperial College’s programme, now in its final month, (there were 28 applicants for 14 places) consists of:

  • An initial residential week (the programme is co-located in a Coworking Space in  Imperial West’s new Translation and Innovation Hub) consisting of an introduction to the programme and getting acquainted with one another. It introduces Lean startup theory, the Business Model Canvas, and the Value proposition; and is about the making and taking of opportunities -who the participants might seek to talk to and how they could find them.
  • This is followed by bi-weekly meetings, as a cohort, to encourage peer-to-peer learning with the Director of the programme (if necessary by Skype), to talk through what they have learned, their encounters, their progress, their sticking points and their plans.
  • The programme is complemented by a series of Masterclasses and workshops, (which are also open to the entire Imperial community) on such topics as IP, PR and marketing, finance, design thinking etc.
  • There are two or three business coaches, with whom you can book a time; advice can be sought from the four members of the management team, all members of Imperial staff.
  • They also get access to the Imperial Venture Mentor Scheme, which meets once a month, for mentor/adviser help, and has a cohort of 15-20 mentors, primarily Alumni.
  • In the final week, all are present for an expert-led feedback panel at which they receive specific guidance, advice, and direction on their  next steps
  • The programme culminates in a Showcase  – of celebration – with all who have been involved, including partners, contributors and investors, and people from Imperial Innovations and the Enterprise Lab.

Innovate UK’s programme provides funding of £35k per participant, but this programme is funded by Imperial itself – as to £15k to ‘buy out their [time under their] contract’, and £15k for expenses of meeting customers, suppliers, regulators, whoever.

This expensive programme (just under £½mn a time), limited as it is to a small number of participants, acknowledges that management in science is inadequately focused onto the potential applications of its work.

A better alternative is to make it a condition of every grant for research potentially related to public issues that its recipient explore its potential applications – by establishing and maintaining contacts of this kind. And universities need to make provision to enable scientists to make and maintain these contacts. The Wellcome Trust would be the ideal pioneer.

 

(1) Are there any limits to the scope for Accelerators?’ April, 2015 Hallowed publication ‘Nature’ reports on a nine-week ‘Biotech Boot Camp’ in the US, funded by the National Institutes of Health, which aims to get entrepreneurial scientists to get out there and ask potential customers what they want.

 (2) Research-led businesses desperately need commercialisers Nov, 2015 Few leading business people started their careers as scientists yet the need for commercial support for research-led businesses is acute. How can this chasm be bridged? 

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John Whatmore, March 2018

 

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Re-shaping support for SMEs

Aside

Making the most out of young businesses Lessons are arriving from all sides about early-stage businesses (Village Capital, Nesta, Scaleup Institute, Growth Builder, IDEO). What do they tell us? Shouldn’t Innovate UK be taking a bigger role in the support of innovation practice?

 Most striking is the extent to which Accelerators – a fast growing phenomenon – have become the province of corporates. They force new businesses to focus not just on good ideas but on important (commercial) issues; they know their own field – its problems and opportunities; they provide invaluable support; and they are willing and capable investors (Wayra Lab, Cisco, John Lewis, and many others.)

However, this does leave great swathes of the population and of the economy untouched by support for innovation eg the public sector, several industries, large parts of the country and the everyday lives of most people. The Nesta report identifies some; and Geoff Mulgan, its Chief Executive, has focused on others, not least in the public sector.

The main sources of funding for Accelerators are now Corporates, the Public sector and Philanthropics. Venture Capital is a source for only 8% of Accelerators (and 2% of Incubators). The Nesta Report reveals that in the UK both Incubators and Accelerators rely heavily on public funds – from a variety of sources (in many areas and sectors for a substantial proportion of funding and in some, completely.)

It is now well recognised that the greatest opportunity for the development of entrepreneurial eco-systems is in ‘sectors that have a deep and local focus’; and the Scaleup Institute is busily working with LEPs to help them to do so.

However, innovation strategy and practice are evolving; and there is still little experienced management of proactive support.

Recent research by IDEO revealed something surprising: neither a more traditional approach to product development – coming up with three good options, analyzing them, and choosing one to move forward with, nor the lean startup approach – taking a best guess, piloting it, and then pivoting based on what works – is the most effective way to launch a new product. Instead, when teams iterate on five or more different solutions, they are 50% more likely to launch a product successfully.

‘Entrepreneurial support organisations are critical infrastructure for cities, communities and for corporates; and they too need clearly articulated support’ says Village Capital, a major US philanthropic business. The most common form of support is mentoring, but the promotion and management of mentoring (and of support in general) is a role that is extremely rare, but much needed, and rarer in Incubators than in Accelerators. Moreover a different format of support programme is also emerging – in the form of regular monthly meetings – especially of hi-growth businesses – based round collaborative learning.

There is at present no body that adequately encompasses Incubators and Accelerators – to help steer policy, identify best practice, and foster training and development in innovationeering. Innovate UK should take urgent steps to create an appropriate KTN.

John Whatmore, May 2017