Pitt Renewed as NSF I-Corps Site


Judy Cameron, right, and doctoral student Alexandra Miragaia demonstrate the Working for Kids: Building Skills platform.

 October 11, 2017

Pitt Teams Supported by I-Corps grant have resulted in 9 startups

Pitt psychiatry professor Judy Cameron had no inkling of what it would take to translate her brain research into an educational platform to help at-risk youth make better life decisions. The education, mentoring and funding she received through the National Science Foundation (NSF) I-Corps program, administered by the Innovation Institute, has given her the confidence to launch her own startup company, Working for Kids: Building Skills, earlier this year.

The NSF established I-Corps to help move academic research toward societal impact through commercial application. Pitt became one of the early I-Corps sites in 2015. Since that time, 93 innovation teams representing 36 departments across campus have participated in the Pitt Ventures First Gear program that the Innovation Institute established to administer the program.  Working with the Innovation Institute, these teams have obtained over $11 million over the past three years in additional funding to advance their ideas toward commercialization through various University pitch competitions business competitions, philanthropic award grants, state commercialization grants, economic development funding, partner sponsored research, Small Business Innovation Research grants (SBIRs) and national NSF I-Corps team funding. Seven teams are in the current First Gear cohort.

Nine spinouts have been formed from Pitt I-Corps teams, including Working for Kids.

On the heels of this success, the NSF has renewed Pitt as an I-Corps Site for another three years.

“We are excited with the momentum that has been created for commercializing Pitt research through our participation in the I-Corps program,” said Evan Facher, interim director of the Innovation Institute. “I-Corps has been an effective tool for helping our investigators determine if their innovations have commercial potential and to develop strategies to de-risk their innovations both from a technical and customer perspective.”

Facher said introducing I-Corps to Pitt has been an important factor in the University setting new records for startups launched from University intellectual property in the past three years.

The program has also supported historically under-represented individuals, helping them achieve impact for their research. Half of the Pitt team members participating in the University’s I-Corps site have been either female, a minority, disabled, a veteran or a non U.S. national male.

Teams that participate in the initial I-Corps program each receive $3,000 to help conduct pre-commercialization activities, such as customer discovery, market studies, or prototype development. The teams, which consist of a faculty lead, an entrepreneurial lead (typically a graduate student in the faculty member’s lab), and an experienced business mentor provided by the Innovation Institute.

Teams that complete the eight-week program can apply for the national I-Corps program, which provides additional mentoring and $50,000 to continue down the path toward commercialization. Ten Pitt teams have been accepted into the national program.

The Innovation Institute has additionally leveraged the I-Corps educational platform, which employs the Lean Launchpad methodology for new enterprise creation, to help student entrepreneurs at Pitt pursue their own ideas not connected to University research. To date, 80 student teams have participated in the Blast Furnace student idea accelerator, which has led to the formation of 36 new companies.

Furthermore, the Innovation Institute, through its affiliate the Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence, has adapted the First Gear curriculum to assist regional small businesses in Western Pennsylvania in launching or pivoting their business model. Read about one example here.

The next cohort of Pitt Ventures First Gear begins in January. To learn more about the program and how to apply, click here.