How a punch in the nose and a little persistence can turn a scientist into an entrepreneur _lowres

National Science Foundation and I-Corps logo

In mid-July, the first group of LSU research teams will begin a new, six-week entrepreneurship training program whose modest goals include nothing less than changing the university’s culture.

“Ultimately, we don’t want to take a faculty member and teach them how to be an entrepreneur to get them out of the university,” said Andrew Maas, LSU assistant vice president for research. “We’re trying to teach them how to become an entrepreneur so they can teach their students better how to serve business’s needs.”

Grad students in master’s and doctoral programs are taught by academics to be academics, Maas said. The problem is that 80 percent of those students aren’t going to work in academia.

“If we can teach faculty how to educate students how to think in a business world, that can have some huge, long-term impacts,” Maas said. “It’s going to take years for those things to come to fruition, but it’s going to change the culture.”

The first step toward that lofty goal was LSU’s selection in January as an Innovation Corps Site by the National Science Foundation. The school received a $100,000 grant to help three-member teams find out if there’s a market for their technology. Tulane is the only other I-Corps Site in Louisiana. There are more than 50 nationwide.

According to the foundation, a team consists of an academic, who is a faculty member or adviser who accepts the grant award; an entrepreneurial lead, usually a post-doctoral or grad student who does the legwork to commercialize technology; and a mentor, typically a serial entrepreneur who can help guide the student through the startup process.

LSU can offer up to $3,000 to each team, money to cover travel costs for visits to potential customers who can validate a concept.

“The biggest issue faculty have is they think, ‘I made the beautiful baby. Everybody wants it,’ ” Maas said. “We have to help them understand that, ‘No, not everybody wants it, and actually when we go and talk to people, nobody wants it. Because it doesn’t solve a problem for them.’ ”

The I-Corps program will train researchers on how to talk to companies and, just as importantly, to listen to them, Maas said.

Here’s my idea. Here’s how it can solve a problem, he said. A company may say the technology doesn’t fit its needs. At that point, the team can go back to the lab and pivot, changing the technology so it focuses on a market.

Anita J. La Salle, who oversees I-Corps for the National Science Foundation, said being able to adapt is key.

The I-Corps Teams program — the national-level program that offers $50,000 grants — requires researchers to interview 100 potential customers in about six weeks.

Some 800 teams have gone through the Teams program training since it began 4½ years ago, La Salle said. Roughly 80 percent of the teams pivoted from their original idea.

She describes this ability to change course as “the secret sauce” that helped more than half of those teams launch startups and attract more than $100 million in investment. The foundation has spent a little less than that on the entire program.

“Because if they fall in love with their technology, they’re doomed,” La Salle said. “But if they can get out there and really talk to folks and find out what the world needs, they have a much a higher probability of success.”

So far, 10 teams have applied for the LSU I-Corps program, and 15 business mentors have registered. Maas said LSU is looking for more business mentors.

At LSU, the I-Corps classroom training will cover intellectual property and market potential. It also gets into follow-on funding, including I-Corps Teams grants; LSU’s Leverage Innovation for Technology grants; Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer funding; as well as angel investors, people who provide financial backing for startups.

The Leverage Innovation for Technology program offers up to $50,000 in proof-of-concept grants. LSU will require applicants for LIFT money to go through the I-Corps training, to show researchers how to take their concept into the business world.

By definition, earning a Ph.D. requires students to teach themselves to become experts in a field. The process teaches them to believe they either know everything or can teach themselves anything. It’s an effective method, but it leaves some gaps when it comes to learning about business.

Maas compares learning to be an entrepreneur to learning to ride a bike.

No one learns how to ride a bike by reading a book or attending lectures by expert bike riders or watching a video on YouTube, he said. People learn to ride with a parent or sibling or someone running alongside, holding on to the bike’s seat and letting go a few steps at a time and grabbing back on when the rider falters.

“That is what this program is … because entrepreneurship and building businesses and starting companies and solving real-world problems is something you get the feel for by doing it, and without doing it, you’re never going to know,” Maas said. “And you’re never going to know if you like to ride a bike unless you get on the bike and somebody holds the seat up and let’s go, and you freak out, ‘Oh nooooo! Grab back on!’ ”

The part where they let go of the seat, that’s what entrepreneurship is, Maas said.

Follow Ted Griggs on Twitter, @tedgriggsbr.