Selling Science: Applying Lean at the NSF I-Corps

Published at the NYU Entrepreneurs Blog Part 1 and Part 2. —

Lessons Learned at the NSF’s I-Corps for Learning program:

“Parents didn’t even know what STEM was, nor STEAM!” exclaimed a conference participant.

Similar concerns could be heard from many of the academic and entrepreneurial educators this April, streaming out of the San Francisco Marriott after their first few days in windowless meeting rooms and actually talking to parents – their potential customers.

These would-be entrepreneurs were all grantees participating in a two month-long funded Lean LaunchPad course, developed by Steve Blank and run by the National Science Foundation (NSF) under the Innovation Corps for Learning (NSF I-Corps L) program. The goal of the program is to vet their educational ideas for sustainability and/or scale.

Lean methods have been embraced as a near religion in some startup circles, and is perceived to be the ideal method for driving potential unicorn-sized high growth market opportunities. Now the NSF is banking on Lean LaunchPad for social impact ideas to find their greatest impact.

The goal of NSF I-Corps for Learning is to foster entrepreneurship that will lead to the commercialization, greater scale and impact of STEM education, and learning innovations. The limited adoption and quality of STEM education is considered a crisis by the Committee on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education under the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC). In response, the NSTC has developed a five-year strategic plan to address the US’s low ranking in STEM education and lack of skilled STEMdino workers.

I attended the NSF’s I-Corps L program as a mentor on an NYU team – Cognitive Toy Box – as I was curious to see how Lean LaunchPad works on social impact challenges.

I’ve participated in the adoption of the Lean LaunchPad method within NYU. NYU’s Entrepreneurship Institute has been a lead proponent of adopting Lean LaunchPad curricula in the Summer LaunchPad accelerator and supporting educators across NYU to prototype the course. I have had the privilege of teaching the first for-credit class at NYU at Tisch’s ITP program in 2014, which continues this year as we support a new batch of student teams to find their market potential.

There are a number of parallels in how the NSF teaches Lean LaunchPad and how we have adopted the curricula at NYU ITP. Because ITP is an engineering school in an art school, students are encourage to explore pre-commercial ideas and often struggle when they start to think of their concepts, projects, and potential businesses.

Most of the teams participating in NSF I-Corps L program faced a similar struggle – did their idea have the potential to be a scalable business, or even deliver a sustainable source of recurring revenue? What organizational structure would best propel their educational innovation? Where should they focus their efforts so that their innovation could achieve maximal social impact? Does the team have what it takes to pursue their innovation? While these questions may seem crazy to a Bay Area creator of the next wearable, dating app, or cloud-based big data analytics solution, they are deeply relevant to educators who are motivated not by profit potential, but by educational impact.

Part 2:

Customer Discovery Divines Sustainable vs. Scale Potential

In the first week indoctrination to Lean LaunchPad, the 24 teams in I-Corps L were encouraged to change their approach for how to scale curricula and teaching method innovations, under the relentlessly direct feedback of fellow Ed-Tech entrepreneurs, VCs, NSF advisors, and the Lean LaunchPad creators, Steve Blank and Jerry Engel. Each team, a triad consisting of an academic principal investigator, an entrepreneurial lead, and a mentor, were charged with taking their initial learning innovation and finding customers – fast. “Get out of the building” to discover potential customers.

The Customer Discovery approach is well suited to answer the question of scalable vs. sustainable. Most academic educators share the same bias as tech founders who fall in love with their solution without ever talking to more than a few potential customers. Customer Discovery forces the team out of the comfort zone of academic hierarchy and challenges the egos of the team, who are deeply humbled when they first try to sell their solution.

Almost every team had defined the STEM crisis as the “hair on fire” problem they were motivated to solve, and were shocked to learn a quick sample of parents at Union Square in SF, or the Exploratorium museum, had never heard of STEM or STEAM. The creators of an after school STEM curricula learned that a highly educated high income parent would pay a premium for these kinds of programs, but then the educators were disappointed that launching with this segment would delay their ability to reach students of all incomes.

Those teams that were successful in repositioning their value proposition to appeal to a potentially larger addressable market were on to a more scalable innovation. For example, a number of after school curricula creators learned that they shouldn’t be headlining their value proposition with the STEM crisis. After deeply listening to families of all incomes and educational advancement status, they learned that there were common themes for how parents described their deepest needs. More important than science, or design thinking, or engineering methods, these parents want the benefits these methods have to offer.

Parents want their children to develop team-building skills, collaboration skills, discovery and joy in learning, and reduce their fear of failure.

There is a huge addressable market in a society that seeks these outcomes. Recasting the value proposition based on these outcomes of learning, rather than the curricula itself, worked to expand the market.

Other teams confirmed potential sustainability rather than scalability. Defining how a certain curriculum or program could replicate within a local school system, or to other school systems. While these project teams were unlikely to see a hockey stick style growth curve in their future, they are well equipped to envision how their innovation can move beyond their initial experiments.

At the end of the program, the NSF has a particularly open stance to what becomes of the project team innovations.

The outcomes of the projects are expected to be:

  • A clear go-no go decision concerning the viability and effectiveness of the learning oriented resources/products, practices and services
  • An implementation “product” and process for potential partners/adopters
  • A transition plan to move the effort forward and bring the innovation to scale.

The prize for participation for academic entrepreneurs is high: The I-Corps programs feed the popular NSF Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Tech Transfer Programs (SBIR and STTR), and successful businesses can earn multiple non-dilutive grants that rival seed or Series A investments.

NSF is very comfortable telling STEM educator / entrepreneurs that it’s ok to fail once you’ve gathered enough evidence that your project isn’t viable. At the start of the program, teams were assured that a decision to not continue a program is completely acceptable. Teams move to no-go when they learn the steep uphill climb it would take to scale their innovation, because they are too early, there is too much competition, or they are not cost effective enough to deliver in the current market environment. Teams also choose no go when the individuals involved decide that entrepreneurship is just not their calling.

What I learned from the experience in the end: parents want for their children what the NSF wants from educator entrepreneurs: learning how to take risks, collaborate, and reduce our fear of failure, and the joy of discovery.