Make Your Innovation Commercially Viable

7/25/2022 1:25:54 PM Urvashi Jha

Want to find out if your innovation is commercially viable? Don’t know how to go about customer discovery? Don’t know how to access federal grants to commercialize your technology? Want to accelerate the technology commercialization process? If you answered yes to any of these questions, Illinois I-Corps is the right educational program for you.

What is I-Corps? 

I-Corps (Innovation Corps) is an initiative developed by the National Science Foundation (NSF) hosted at local, regional, and national levels that uses experiential education to help university students, faculty, and researchers bring their ideas out of the labs to the marketplace.  

Illinois I-Corps, the local initiative, is now part of the NSF Great Lakes Regional I-Corps Hub. It offers a series of programs and workshops to prepare faculty, staff, and students in commercializing their startup ideas and research. Innovators gain valuable insight into entrepreneurship, starting a business, and industry requirements and challenges.

Taking part in a local I-Corps program like Illinois I-Corps also improves your chances of successfully applying to the NSF national I-Corps program and receiving a $50,000 grant. I-Corps teams are more likely to receive follow on funding like Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer funding. Researchers and entrepreneurs can receive anywhere up to $2 million in equity-free funding to determine a technology’s feasibility and commercialize. Since 2013, over 250 teams have participated in Illinois I-Corps and have raised $138 million in funding.

Illinois I-Corps is focused on helping participants identify, refine, and quantify the value proposition of their startups. Innovators learn to translate ideas and IP into customer solutions that generate economic and/or social value. Several courses are offered through the Fall, Spring, and Summer. The Technology Entrepreneur Center collaborates with Research Park, Office of Technology Management, and Illinois Ventures to offer I-Corps programs.

Illinois I-Corps Summer 2022 Cohort

18 Illinois teams took part in the 6 weeks Illinois I-Corps summer cohort, out of which 6 teams each received a $1000 stipend. Participating teams conducted 15-30 customer interviews on an average. Through the business thesis exercise that was focused on product market fit research, the teams learned to identify what value their startup was creating, who they were creating value for, how to interview potential customers and all the stakeholders in their product/services/offering ecosystem.

The teams also learned about building ecosystem and stakeholder maps, customer segment sizing, and more. Justin Holding, Founder of Illini Box and Industrial Engineering student at UIUC, said, “I-Corps really helped us narrow down the focus of our business. We learned the importance of understanding the problems that our customers are facing. I-Corps was an incredible program that walked us through the steps of interviewing customers so that we can craft our value proposition. The program content and mentors helped our business identify our key customers and what problems they experienced. And the stipend helped us reach more high-value customers outside of our network.”

Illini Box is a reusable packaging platform utilizing an innovative SaaS solution that empowers the reuse economy through the digitization of containers. Illini Box is currently being utilized in Chicagoland restaurants, festivals, and conferences. 

Justin Holding, Founder of Illini Box. 
Justin Holding, Founder of Illini Box. 

“Illini Box discovered that our target customers are stadiums and large cafeterias. These customers want to become more sustainable but struggle with creating a cost-effective system. Currently, they generate a lot of single-use waste, struggle to find quality products, and find it difficult to change customer behavior,” added Holding.

Illinois I-Corps summer cohort participants also gained insights about recognizing and discovering a larger potential customer base. "Illinois I-Corps helped our team expand multiple customer segments to gain an in-depth analysis of where we can introduce our product. After conducting 30+ interviews, we could identify our major customer segments and how each customer's ecosystem worked. Furthermore, the feedback, stories, and questions helped us tremendously with understanding barriers to access and certain pain points that our device could help combat,” said Erica Joo, Market Research Analyst at Ferritiva and Molecular and Cellular Biology Senior at UIUC. Ferritiva is developing a saliva-based testing method to check for iron deficiency, which will save time and costs associated with obtaining blood work.

Gabe Tavas, UIUC Sustainable Design student and founder of Symmetry Wood said, “Illinois I-Corps pushed Symmetry to get much more specific and quantitative about a value proposition that applies to customers. It held us accountable to the real world. And by doing so, it gave our environmental mission a tangible lifeline.”

Symmetry Wood is a biotech company that has developed a wood alternative named Pyrus using renewable bacterial cellulose. The cellulose can be formed into a new and innovative alternative to wood for many commercial products. Tavas is using Pyrus to make items like guitar picks and jewelry. In the future, he hopes to 3D print the bacteria cellulose into bigger objects that would be difficult to make out of a sheet of the material.

Fall 2022 Session: Lean Launchpad Short Course

The application for the Illinois I-Corps fall session of the Lean Launchpad Short Course is open and due on September 14. The in-person session runs from September 28 - November 9 at EnterpriseWorks technology incubator at Research Park.

The Lean Launchpad Short Course uses the Lean LaunchPad method to give participants a working knowledge of how to think about their innovation ideas from a business and customer perspective, as well as how to scientifically conduct customer discovery interviews; the first step in any commercialization process. Learn more and apply.