California State University, Northridge has been at the forefront of promoting entrepreneurship and innovation through on-campus incubators like LACI@CSUNand student competitions like Appjam, Varjam and the Bull Ring. To strengthen these efforts, the National Science Foundation (NSF) will allocate a $500,000 grant over the next five years as part of its Innovation Corps (I-Corps) Program to support further science, technology, engineering, math (STEM) and business entrepreneurship activities at CSUN.
The federally funded grant will provide as many as 30 teams with up to $3,000 to explore an idea, product or service to determine its viability on the commercial market. The teams consist of an entrepreneurial lead – typically a student or postdoctoral scholar – a staff or faculty member and an advisor or mentor, who can be a non-CSUN affiliate.
“The idea is to feed the pipeline of faculty and students who are interested in economic development, entrepreneurship and innovation,” said Crist Khachikian, Associate Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies.
The money will support the teams for up to one year and facilitate customer discovery and training in the lean startup methodology. LACI@CSUN supports the teams along the way, offering networking opportunities and access to mentors. At the end of the year, teams will have a better idea of their concept’s commercial potential.
“The I-Corps fits in a void we had, which was to give faculty and students time and resources to explore whether their idea is something that is of interest as a commercial product,“ Khachikian said.
The I-Corps program supports campuses across the nation and encourages collaboration between the institutions. CSUN is a first-time receiver of the grant and collaborates with San Diego State University, the University of Southern California and the University of California, Los Angeles, among others, to establish best practices.
Recruitment for participating teams will begin this summer for the fall. A two-day kickoff meeting will teach the teams about the I-Corps program, entrepreneurship, resources and business development strategies.
After completing the I-Corps program, teams will have a number of options to expand their work based on their customer discovery. They can form a startup and apply to LACI@CSUN, the NSF Small Business Innovation Research/Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) programs or other external and internal funding sources. Teams may also be eligible to compete in the national I-Corps Teams program that offers up to $50,000 for additional customer discovery. In a closing meeting, teams receive support to develop strategies and plans for business and marketing moving forward.
“Let’s say the entrepreneurial lead is a graduating student — they can start a small business outside in the local area and still keep the team together. Through the NSF SBIR/STTR program, they can apply for money, up to $100,000 in the first round, and if they are successful, they can go for a second round – which is $1.5 million for up to three years,” Khachikian said. “Those are the ones who are really ramping up small businesses.”