New Multi-University NSF Hubs to Foster Entrepreneurial Startups, Broaden Opportunities for Underrepresented Groups

The Northeast region hub, led by Princeton University and including Lehigh, will accelerate tech and enhance diversity in entrepreneurship.

Story by

Amy White

Xuanhong Cheng

The research team of Xuanhong Cheng, center, a professor of bioengineering and materials science and engineering, is focused on developing nanomaterials and microfluidic platforms and devices that can analyze intact bioparticles, such as cells and pathogens, at the point of need. Research such as this could be the basis for I-Corps teams going forward.

Lehigh is part of one of five new U.S. National Science Foundation I-Corps Hubs announced today to provide experiential entrepreneurial training to academic researchers across all fields of science and engineering and accelerate the transformation of scientific discoveries into technologies that improve everyday lives.

Each Innovation Corps (I-Corps) Hub is funded at $3 million per year for five years and comprises a regional alliance of at least eight universities. Lehigh is a member of the Northeast region I-Corps Hub, led by Princeton University, with partner institutions the University of Delaware and Rutgers University. Affiliates include Lehigh and Temple University in Pennsylvania, New Jersey Institute of Technology and Rowan University in New Jersey, and Delaware State University, a Historically Black College or University (HBCU), with new affiliates added each year.

The I-Corps Hubs form the new operational backbone of the National Innovation Network, a network of universities, NSF-funded researchers, established entrepreneurs, local and regional entrepreneurial communities, and other federal agencies that helps researchers learn how to translate fundamental research results to the marketplace. The hubs will work collaboratively to build and sustain a diverse and inclusive innovation ecosystem throughout the U.S.

"For 10 years, the NSF I-Corps program has been critical to fostering the creative spirit and entrepreneurship that enables NSF-funded research to be translated into new products and services and contribute to the nation's economy," said NSF Deputy Assistant Director for Engineering Linda Blevins. "I am delighted to launch the first of our I-Corps Hubs, which will form the foundation for strengthening and scaling this innovation ecosystem. The I-Corps Hubs will bring together diverse scientists and engineers, entrepreneurs, business leaders and industry partners from every part of our country, providing everyone with an opportunity to solve key challenges and spur economic growth, including new startups and new jobs."

Taking research to market

The I-Corps program, established in 2011, connects NSF-funded academic researchers across science and engineering with the technological, entrepreneurial and business communities to help create a National Innovation Network. The program is designed to support the commercialization of deep technologies, which grow from discoveries in fundamental science and engineering.

Ganesh Balasubramanian, right, and Ankit Roy

Ganesh Balasubramanian, right, associate professor of mechanical engineering, and Ph.D. candidate Ankit Roy investigate "computationally-guided engineering of materials and processes," with direct applications in industries from renewable energy and power generation, to advanced manufacturing, to transportation. Research such as this could be the basis for I-Corps teams going forward.

"Fostering the conversion of research discoveries to innovative startup companies is one way that universities can contribute to the regional and national economy,” said Nathan Urban, Lehigh provost and senior vice president for academic affairs. “Many new companies and whole industries have been created based on university-invented technologies. Critical to this process is training and mentoring a diverse group of faculty and students to foster an entrepreneurial mindset. We are very happy to partner with the Princeton I-Corps Hubwith its focus on areas that include Lehigh's historic strengths in materials and computer science as well as emerging strengths in areas like health careto provide best-in-class support for faculty and student founders seeking to grow companies based on the best ideas of Lehigh faculty and students."

The I-Corps Hubs will serve national needs through five areas of responsibility: 

  • Create and implement tools, resources and training activities that enhance the nation's innovation capacity.
  • Identify, develop and support promising research that can generate economic value. 
  • Gather, analyze, evaluate and utilize the data and insights resulting from the experiences of those participating in local, regional and national I-Corps programs.
  • Provide opportunities to diverse communities of innovators.
  • Share and leverage effective innovation practices on a national scale to improve quality of life throughout the nation.

“Princeton is excited to lead this initiative to develop the talent and dynamism of our region’s researchers,” Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber said. “I am especially pleased that the hub will assist those who historically have faced barriers to opportunity and expand the societal impact of new discoveries and innovations.”

The hubs will employ the NSF I-Corps entrepreneurship training approach, which focuses on understanding the needs of potential customers, first-hand exploration of industrial processes and practices, and confronting the challenges of creating successful ventures based on scientific discoveries.

The I-Corps program is based on the “lean startup” methodology in which innovators rapidly iterate on their products and business plans based on customer feedback and market needs. The new hubs will extend the capability of the NSF I-Corps program, which started a decade ago, to grow the societal and economic benefits arising from federally funded research in science and engineering.

The new hubs were formed to accelerate the economic impact of federally funded research—delivering benefits in health care, energy and the environment, computing, artificial intelligence, robotics, advanced materials and other areas—while building skills and opportunities among researchers from all backgrounds, including those historically underrepresented in entrepreneurship.

Multi-university, inclusive collaboration

The innovation and entrepreneurship culture at Lehigh has always been strong, but being part of this multi-university team focused on more inclusive innovation will enable us to take it to a new level,” said John Coulter, Lehigh professor of mechanical engineering and senior associate dean for research for the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science. “Through this program we will create not only more entrepreneurial teams, but inclusive better teams poised to handle the inevitable hurdles and pivots that go along with successful innovation.”

John Coulter

John Coulter, professor of mechanical engineering and senior associate dean for research for the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science.

Coulter is the lead faculty principal investigator for the I-Corps grant representing Lehigh. Rick Smith, director of Lehigh’s Office of Technology Transfer, will also play a significant role as programs and initiatives associated with the new innovation hub are developed and implemented.

Participation will result in both expanded and enhanced innovation and entrepreneurship programs at Lehigh to catalyze the formation and success of entrepreneurial teams, and more Lehigh-based entrepreneurial teams that will lead to more regionally based startups that benefit the community, Coulter said. Lehigh’s use- and impact-inspired innovation culture spans a broad range of technical areas and application fields, with interdisciplinary emphases on materials, devices, data science, intelligent systems, infrastructure, energy and health being areas where innovation-based team formation is likely to be fostered, he said.

Lehigh has a strong history of I-Corps project activity dating back to the program's creation,” Coulter added. “A large number of faculty-led teams have participated in the program to date, and through involvement in the newly funded hub many more are still to come.”

Located in the heart of the U.S. northeast, the Northeast region hub will make use of its proximity to “deep-tech industries” that revolve around discoveries in areas such as health care, pharmaceuticals, energy, the environment, financial technologies, agriculture, communications and digital information. It will build on the robust industrial and government relationships of its academic institutions to develop cross-sector partnerships that leverage the investment of federal research dollars in the region’s universities.

The five I-Corps Hubs announced today, and participating institutions, are:

NSF I-Corps Hub: Northeast region

  • Princeton University – Lead 
  • Delaware State University
  • Lehigh University 
  • New Jersey Institute of Technology
  • Rowan University 
  • Rutgers University
  • Temple University
  • University of Delaware

NSF I-Corps Hub: Mid-Atlantic region 

  • University of Maryland, College Park – Lead
  • Carnegie Mellon University
  • The George Washington University
  • Howard University
  • Johns Hopkins University
  • North Carolina State University 
  • Penn State
  • The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • Virginia Tech

NSF I-Corps Hub: New York region 

  • The City University of New York – Lead 
  • Columbia University  
  • Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
  • New York University
  • Rockefeller University 
  • Stevens Institute of Technology
  • Stony Brook University
  • University of Massachusetts Medical School
  • University at Albany

NSF I-Corps Hub: West region 

  • University of Southern California – Lead 
  • California Institute of Technology 
  • Colorado School of Mines
  • University of California, Los Angeles
  • University of California, Riverside
  • University of Colorado Boulder
  • The University of New Mexico
  • The University of Utah

NSF I-Corps Hub: Great Lakes region 

  • University of Michigan – Lead 
  • Iowa State University
  • Missouri University of Science & Technology
  • Purdue University
  • The University of Akron
  • University of Chicago 
  • University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign 
  • University of Minnesota Twin Cities
  • The University of Toledo
  • University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee 

For more information, visit the NSF I-Corps website or the Northeast region hub website.

Story by

Amy White

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