How Going Lean May Save Lives

Haas School Lecturer Steve Blank is leading a pilot I-Corps National Institutes of Health (NIH) program to commercialize life science ideas—ranging from improved imaging for cancer surgery to drugs with fewer side effects.

The goal of the program is to bring innovations to market "with lightning speed," Blank says.

The pilot launched Oct. 6 in Bethesda, Md., in association with UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. Blank, a Berkeley-Haas lecturer and National Science Foundation (NSF) principal investigator, developed the I-Corps curriculum and is teaching the program using methods taught in his Lean LaunchPad course.

I-Corps @ NIH is a branch of the NSF I-Corps that teaches scientists the same Lean Startup techniques that have revolutionized how thousands of startups worldwide are now being built. The Lean LaunchPad method discards traditional business plans for Lean Startup techniques such as customer development, agile development, and the use of the “business model canvas” to track how a startup tests its hypotheses.

This first I-Corps @NIH cohort includes life science and healthcare teams focused on therapeutics, diagnostics and medical devices. Each team is a funded company that has received an NIH SBIR Phase 1 grant.

The 21 NIH teams are learning how to:

• Define clinical utility before spending millions of dollars

• Understand core customers and the sales and marketing process required for initial clinical sales and downstream commercialization

• Assess intellectual property and regulatory risk before they design and build

• Gather data essential to customer partnerships/collaboration before doing the science

• Identify financial vehicles before they need them

UC Berkeley is part of the NSF I-Corps Bay Area Regional node along with UCSF and Stanford University. The Bay Area node, one of seven I-Corps nodes, trained 93 startup teams last year.

“We’ve combined the cutting edge of what we’ve learned about entrepreneurship with the best of National Research Labs. Hold on to your hats because we’re all in for one heck of a ride in a wave of new science startups,” says Andre Marquis, executive director of the Lester Center for Entrepreneurship at Haas and a member of the I-Corps @NIH teaching team. Also teaching the course is Jerry Engel, Berkeley-Haas emeritus adjunct professor and former Lester Center executive director.

According to Blank, I-Corps has become the U.S. standard for commercializing science, training 400 teams of this country’s foremost scientists from the NSF, Department of Energy, and Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. The approach prompts scientists to get out of their labs and speak to potential customers. Nationwide, participating scientists have spoken to over 40,000 customers to test over 15,000 business hypotheses.

“The future of translational medicine at the NIH is Lean – it’s fast, it works and it’s unlike anything else ever done,” says Blank. “In the end we’re going to create new companies that bring life-saving drugs, devices and diagnostics to clinicians and patients faster and cheaper."