Lehigh University joins National Science Foundation program to move innovations to market sooner

Lehigh University has joined a U.S. National Science Foundation program that will provide training to academic researchers in science and engineering to shorten the time it takes for new discoveries to become technologies that improve everyday lives.

Lehigh will join one of five NSF I-Corps Hubs, each funded at $3 million a year for five years. Each hub is a regional alliance of at least eight universities.

Lehigh University, Bethlehem, 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, both in New Jersey; and Delaware State University, a Historically Black College or University, with new affiliates added each year.

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, according to a NSF I-Corp press release. 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.

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 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 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 move 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., officials said.

“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 Linda Blevins, NSF deputy assistant director for engineering. “I am delighted to launch the first of our I-Corps Hubs, which will form the foundation for strengthening and scaling this innovation ecosystem.

“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.

Companies and whole industries have been created based on university-invented technologies, he said.

“Critical to this process is training and mentoring a diverse group of faculty and students to foster an entrepreneurial mindset,” Urban said. “We are very happy to partner with the Princeton I-Corps Hub – with its focus on areas that include Lehigh’s historic strengths in materials and computer science as well as emerging strengths in areas like health care – to 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 by:

• Creating and implementing tools, resources and training activities that enhance the nation’s innovation capacity.

• Identifying, developing and supporting promising research that can generate economic value.

• Gathering, analyzing, evaluating and using data and insights from the experiences of those participating in local, regional and national I-Corps programs.

• Providing opportunities to diverse communities of innovators.

• Sharing and leveraging effective innovation practices on a national scale to improve quality of life throughout the nation.

“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, professor of mechanical engineering and senior associate dean for research for the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science at Lehigh. “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.”

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.

“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.