Innovation Station

I-Corps program provides boot camp for start-ups

More than two dozen East Carolina University students, faculty and staff, as well as members of the Greenville community, have begun an entrepreneurship boot camp called I-Corps to help hone their business ideas and jump start the startup process.

The pilot program, designed to encourage and embrace the ideation, innovation and commercialization process at ECU, has received a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to establish an Innovation Corps site.

I-Corps is a federal program designed to enable and prepare teams to accelerate development of ideas using its proven methodology. I-Corps @ ECU will support new venture development by building a network of ECU faculty, staff and students in partnership with industry advisors using proven approaches to innovation and commercialization.

Participants will assess their ideas for customer fit and develop new product and business models for development of sustainable start-up companies in eastern North Carolina. Innovators will have access to resources such as ECU’s Idea Lab, Innovation Design Lab, MakerBot Innovation Center and the SEED incubator.

The project is the vision of Marti Van Scott, director of the ECU Office of Technology Transfer, to improve the process of identifying, assessing and commercializing new product opportunities generated by ECU faculty, staff and students. The first phase, which began Oct. 20, consists of a five-week program in which participants will be introduced to the concepts of ideation, business model canvas, customer discovery and value proposition.

David Hasbun describes how his team will market its camel pin and finger rocket.

“To me, the exciting thing about this program is that it emphasizes the entrepreneurial process,” said Mike Harris, director of the Miller School of Entrepreneurship in the ECU College of Business.

The first session of the program kicked off with an icebreaker activity in which participants selected a variety of random items from a table and, in groups, explained how they would market different combinations of those items to the public. Creativity and quick thinking were the order of the day.

Harris said the I-Corps team is thrilled with the initial response. “What’s great is that it’s across campus,” he said. “It’s a diverse group.”

ECU departments and schools represented in the participant group included the College of Business, College of Education, Department of Nutrition Science, Student Affairs, the Brody School of Medicine simulation lab, English, psychology and Greenville SEED@ECU.

Van Scott said the program will involve informational and educational presentations and videos, homework, and legwork. “It requires a lot of customer interviews,” she said. “You’ll have to get out of your office and talk to people.”

One of the components of the program is assessing the needs of potential customers by getting out in the community and interviewing the people who make up the target market for the product.

“They all have ideas to start with,” Van Scott said, and those ideas will be focused, shifted and honed throughout the program.

Becky Gilbird of the clinical simulation program at the Brody School of Medicine, said she is participating in order to determine which aspects of the simulation program are marketable. Other participants have existing businesses they’d like to improve or ideas they’d like to try.

Craig Becker of the Department of Health Education and Promotion, along with master of public health student McKenzie Brown, is working to develop an app to help encourage people to improve their health through an approach based on salutogenesis – focusing on factors that promote health and well-being rather than factors that prevent or cure disease.

“We want to get people to engage in behaviors to improve their health,” Becker said. The idea is to turn healthy behaviors into habits.

“This program will help us learn how to develop our app,” added Brown. “We hope to figure out what people want and need in order to gear our app toward those things, encompassing both education and health care.”

Along with key partners from the Office of Innovation and Economic Development, the Office of Technology Transfer, the Miller School of Entrepreneurship, and the Small Business & Technology Development Center, I-Corps@ECU will contribute toward the development of an entrepreneurial culture on campus, generate more innovations on campus, and result in new start-up ventures and jobs for the region.

I-Corps@ECU will support 30 entrepreneurial teams per year and provide seed grants of up to $3,000 per team to help fund customer discovery and prototype development activities.

ECU’s pipeline of commercialized inventions includes the SpeechEasy Fluency Aid, as well as various research and educational tools. Inventions showing promise for future development include new models for diagnosis and treatment of cancer, autoimmune disease and cardiovascular disease and new tools to improve educational outcomes.

I-Corps is a federal program designed to enable and prepare teams to accelerate innovation and commercialization.