On the Road to NIH SBIR/STTR Grant Success-
Entrepreneurship Training Through the I-Corps Program
The Innovation-Corps (I-Corps™) program was initiated at the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2011 to help emerging companies translate a scientific discovery into a marketable product or service. Since its beginnings at the NSF, this immersive entrepreneurship training program has been extended to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), DHS (Department of Homeland Security), USDA (US Department of Agriculture), DOD (Department of Defense), and the Department of Energy (DOE). Although there is a similar format for I-Corps programs available through the various agencies, they have distinct eligibility and application requirements. We’ll highlight the I-Corps program that is available to NIH and CDC Phase 1 SBIR and STTR (NIH only) awardees as described in the recently released Funding Opportunity Announcement PAR-22-073.
The NIH I-Corps curriculum educates and mentors 3-member teams of small company scientists and leaders about how to transform a technology into a marketable product that will improve health. An intensive 3-day Kick-Off Workshop starts the program followed by virtual weekly meetings over the course of 6 weeks. At the center of the program are Customer Discovery Interviews where team members speak with at least 100 industry experts and potential customers/end users, licensees, and partners to determine the value proposition for their company’s product or service. Over the span of 8 weeks, team members are expected to spend at least 25 hours each week on I-Corps activities and assignments. Most of this time will be spent arranging for interviews, conducting interviews and debriefing team members. The program ends with a 2-day Close Out/Lessons Learned Workshop.
Small business applicants must have a current SBIR or STTR Phase 1 grant from the participating NIH Institute/Center (list available here). Recipients of NIH- and CDC-funded SBIR Phase 1 contracts are not eligible for the program. The grant funding period needs to extend through the I-Corps Close Out/Lessons Learned Workshop, and some Institutes/Centers allow the use of a no-cost extension to satisfy this requirement.
Funding for the I-Corps program is arranged through an administrative supplement award to small companies with an active Phase 1 SBIR or STTR grant. Under the recent Funding Opportunity Announcement PAR-22-073, the agency intends to have 2 cohorts of 24 teams for the next 3 fiscal years, with an expiration date of February 3, 2034. Applications are due on February 2 for a program that runs from May-July, and a November 15 deadline is for a program that runs from February-April of the following year.
Each application requires a 3-person team consisting of a C-level corporate officer (such as Chief Operating Officer, Chief Executive Officer, Chief Scientific Officer), a Technical Lead/Expert (usually the SBIR/STTR grant PI) and an Industry Expert (may be from outside the company) with relevant business development experience. Team members need to be available for all I-Corps events and meetings, and commit to the time required for interviews.
The application Research Strategy section should provide a summary of the Predicate SBIR/STTR Phase 1 Grant (1 page), and a description of the I-Corps team members, Commercial Impact and Project Plan (up to 5 pages). Include a biographical sketch for each team member in the application. A sample Research Strategy section of an I-Corps Application is here.
The application budget is limited to $55,000 in total direct costs; no indirect costs should be requested. This amount should include $22,000 for each team for I-Corps workshop registration fees. The remaining budget should allow for travel expenses for any planned in-person I-Corps workshop activities (Kick-Off and Close Out meetings), costs to conduct interviews and personnel time for team members.
Applications are reviewed in two stages: agency staff review the written application and the best-qualified applicants are contacted for a subsequent phone interview. The I-Corps Funding Opportunity Announcement PAR-22-073 describes the specific criteria that reviewers are looking for, and typical phone interview questions.
Planning is Key
The I-Corps program is an excellent resource for Phase 1 SBIR/STTR awardees to mitigate market risk for their technology, and increase the likelihood of success. Learnings gained through interviews with customers and potential business partners can form the basis of a Commercialization Plan section for a Phase 2 SBIR/STTR application. If a company seeks to participate in I-Corps, it’s best to plan ahead as there may be only a short time between notice of a Phase 1 SBIR/STTR award and the deadline for an I-Corps application. Allow adequate time to find a suitable Industry Expert who has the time to be a member of the I-Corps team. Past participants in the I-Corps program can provide valuable additional insights from their experience with the program; they can be identified through searching the NIH RePORTER database. Importantly, some or all of the I-Corps events may be virtual, and will impact budget planning. These and other questions can be clarified by the program contacts listed in the FOA PAR-22-073.
Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) for NIH I-Corps
I-Corps at NIH Information Session Slide Set
I-Corps Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Sample I-Corps Cover Sheet and Application