NSF Innovation Corps: The Coolest Incubator You've Probably Never Heard Of

By Greg Kumparak , written on February 18, 2012

From The News Desk

NSF Innovation Corps. Never heard of it? That's okay — few have. But it's something we should all know about, because it has the potential to be amazing.

Each and every year, the U.S. government's National Science Foundation writes over 10,000 grants to scientists and professors around the country. All in all, that's over $3b a year given to our country's best and brightest. At some point, someone asked: "What would happen if we plucked out a few of the most commercially viable projects, brought their scientists and professors out to California… and taught them to be entrepreneurs?"

And thus, Innovation Corps was born.

Back in July of last year, Stanford lecturer Steve Blank received a phone call from someone who was, as best as he could tell, an army recruiter.

"Our country needs you," they said.

That was great and all — but Steve had already served his time, repairing fighter planes during the Vietnam War. He'd since founded an impressive portfolio of companies (focusing on everything from semiconductors to supercomputers), written two books, and retired. The days for him to be serving in the military were over.

"No, no," said the caller. "We've been reading your blog about your startup class at Stanford."

You see, Steve had essentially invented the Scientific Method for startups with his Lean Launchpad class: get the facets of your business in front of your customers quickly, treat all of your assumptions as hypotheses that require validation, and be ready to adapt at every step of the way. You can read more about Lean LaunchPad at Steve's blog.

The voice on the other end was that of Errol Arkillic, program manager at NSF. The NSF wanted to pull the best scientists in the country out of the comfort of their labs, give them $50,000, all the mentorship they could need (from folks like Blank, True Venture's John Burke, Mohr Davidow's John Feiber, and former Pixar CTO Oren Jacob), and see if they could get a commercial venture to come out on the other side. They wanted an incubator.

This was no ordinary Silicon Valley incubator, mind you. There'd be no hoodies and flip-flops here, and no talk of integrating your social graph. One team worked on detecting explosives using a special material and a UV light. Another worked on a hand-held tool to measure the fluid pressure of your eye. This was hardcore… friggin'... science.

Turns out: the experiment worked. So well, in fact, that they're prepping to do it all over again just six months later — but this time, they're doing it big.

Just days ago, the Obama administration approved a $20 million budget for Innovation Corps. While that's a drop in the bucket compared to the NSF's overall annual cash pile of $7.3 billion, it's considerably more than the $1 or $2 million that Blank says was "pieced together from other parts of the budget" for the first run.

It's worth noting, however, that that $20 mil won't be going into investing in or funding the companies — that's not the goal. Neither the NSF nor the program's mentors take any equity in these projects. While they give the teams $50,000 to cover living expenses and to compensate them for leaving anything they might have left behind, they're not looking to compete with private capital. So much so, in fact, that most people in the project refuse to call it an "incubator".

"They'll never call it an incubator," says Blank. "You don't want the government funding these companies — you want them getting to the point where they're being funded by VCs, or by real revenue from real profits. The idea isn't that the government competes with private capital — it's that the government is taking this research and getting it to the point where private capital will say 'Crap, these are great ideas!'"

So what's the $20 million going towards? Scaling up.

In 2011, they mentored 21 teams. 19 of them have gone on to continue their commercial efforts.

In 2012, they're aiming for 200 teams.

In 2013, they're hoping for 400.

"This is how we're going to kick every other country's ass in the world," says Blank. "We're going to institutionalize what we know how to do best. It's Silicon Valley meets the best of science and engineering."