Haas Helps Turn Scientists into Entrepreneurs

Dozens of scientists and engineers with hopes of making their mark on everything from safe driving to software development converged in Berkeley this summer for a new entrepreneurship program funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Haas' Lester Center for Entrepreneurship is leading the three-year Bay Area NSF Innovation Corps (I-Corps), which provides training, mentoring, and other services to help NSF grant holders accelerate commercialization of their technologies

The node is headed by Haas Dean Rich Lyons; Silicon Valley entrepreneur Steve Blank, an entrepreneurship lecturer at Berkeley and Stanford; and Andre Marquis, executive director of the Haas School's Lester Center for Entrepreneurship. UC San Francisco and the Stanford Technology Ventures Program are partners in the program.

The foundation of the program is Blank's Lean LaunchPad framework, which focuses entrepreneurs on developing business models, rather than business plans, and on iterating their models quickly and frequently while engaging and learning from more than 100 customers.

"That was one of the biggest takeaways," Gary Miller, the mentor of a University of Pittsburgh team, said of I-Corps' emphasis on talking with customers. The Pittsburg team developed a technology to help evaluate a person's ability to drive, which the team believes will be particularly relevant as more baby boomers age.

Nahom Beyene, the team's entrepreneurial lead, noted that before attending I-Corps he had talked to only one customer in 11 months. That number skyrocketed to 101 customers during the two months the team participated in I-Corps, Beyene added, holding up a bag from an occupational therapy conference he attended a week earlier to talk to potential users.

The 20 teams of three members each first came to San Francisco for initial coursework in early July. For the next five weeks they took more entrepreneurship classes online on such topics as distribution channels, revenue models, and partners while being tasked to talk to a minimum of 100 customers.

On Aug. 22, the teams returned to the Bay Area, this time Berkeley, for the final polish: a storytelling class taught by Haas Executive-in-Residence David Riemer, mentoring from Haas faculty to refine their strategies, and presentations to experts during a "Demo Day" Aug. 23.

Before participating in I-Corps, AppScale, a team from the UC Santa Barbara that created a platform to develop cloud-based software, initially thought they should create a "Swiss army knife" of many offerings but found they were "completely wrong" and "completely unfocused," said Chandra Krintz, a UCSB computer science professor and AppScale's chief technology officer.

From talking to customers, they discovered that they should focus instead on just one offering that many people want. In a video about their experience, Krintz noted that potential customers even told them how much they would pay for a product. "Shocking," she said.

Added Woody Rollins, CEO of AppScale: "We originally came in thinking one thing, and we left with another."

More information on Bay Area NSF Innovation Corps

Watch a YouTube video on AppScale's I-Corps Experience

Lester Center Executive Director Andre Marquiz (center) advises a team from the University of PIttsburgh.