Increasing the success potential of promising biotech companies

Biotech startups benefit society by solving unmet scientific and medical needs, but more can be done to move their technologies to market more quickly. We propose a novel equity-free Post-I-Corps Program modeled on academic and private sector accelerators, dedicated exclusively to I-Corps graduates.
Published in Microbiology
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The NSF and NIH Innovation-Corps (I-Corps) programs have been in existence for 12 years and graduated over 3000 teams, many of which have progressed to successful startups.  Yet there is no structure to reward exceptional teams post I-Corps.  I-Corps itself has changed emphasis over the years.  When the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) moved the responsibility of its applied research and innovation activities into its newly created Technology and Innovation Partnerships (TIP) Directorate [1], it archived its prior I-Corps Node program and created the I-Corps Hub model [2].  In contrast to the I-Corps Nodes, whose mission was to cover a larger geographic area to spread I-Corps [3], the goal of the new I-Corps Hub program is to be geographically local and to drill deep into that ecosystem to embrace innovators who previously had not participated in I-Corps [4].  In the fall 2019, an evaluation of the New York City innovation ecosystem recognized that the existence of over 10 major regional medical centers required a full commitment to life science applied research innovators.  The New York I-Corps Hub was awarded in the summer of 2021 and over half of its consortia were institutions new to I-Corps and those dedicated to life science research, such as Rockefeller University, the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and the University of Massachusetts Medical School [5, 6]. 

With the commitment of the NY I-Corps Hub to life science entrepreneurship, it was necessary to educate its leadership in the current best practices for biotechnology business development.  The internationally recognized leader in life science innovation training is the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) Life Science Entrepreneurship program [7].  Accordingly, the NY I-Corps Hub Program Director enrolled in the 3rd Global Entrepreneurship Master Class for Life Sciences/Healthcare Startups: Direct from Silicon Valley [8].  This cutting-edge class demonstrated the power of remote training during the Covid-19 pandemic to connect and educate life science entrepreneurs globally [9].  Fortuitously, the NY I-Corps Hub Program Director and the UCSF Innovation Ventures Entrepreneurship Managing Director were previous colleagues who worked together with Steve Blank, one of the co-creators of I-Corps [10], to develop the National Institutes of Health (NIH) I-Corps at NIH training program [11, 12].

Upon completion of the Global Life Science Entrepreneurship course, the authors met for a debrief which led to a discussion of I-Corps and the simple question “What is missing?” from I-Corps entrepreneurship training, a topic in which they were well-versed.  Each came to this discussion with different perspectives.  The Managing Director has an MBA and extensive career experience in senior management positions in venture-backed, life science companies prior to starting a University-based entrepreneurship program.  She advises and teaches startups on creating business plans that satisfy investor requirements.  Her pain point is founders who thought they were ready to pitch VCs but had not yet validated their business fundamentals.  In contrast, the I-Corps Hub Program Director has a deep technology PhD, a successful academic basic science career, biotechnology startup executive experience, and is currently assisting other academic deep technologists in launching new startups.  His pain points include managing expectations of academic founders on the most appropriate business development pathway for their laboratory discoveries.

The culmination of their series of discussions was the provocative policy statement that has now been published in Nature Biotechnology.  The authors originally planned on contributing a commentary, but the editors allowed them to submit a larger contribution.  It appears in the Careers section which is quite appropriate.  Deep technologists who endure the entrepreneurship process through to launching and running an entity, even if it is unsuccessful, experience full employment.  They become transformed and enter the workforce in leadership roles instead of entry level.  The next step is to develop a pilot program to test the core hypothesis that a new, non-equity-bearing life science accelerator program designed specifically for the top tier of I-Corps graduates will significantly increase the number of successful biotechnology companies and enable workforce transformation.  The future for biotech startups remains bright indeed.

[1] https://beta.nsf.gov/news/nsf-establishes-new-directorate-technology

[2] https://beta.nsf.gov/funding/opportunities/nsf-innovation-corps-hubs-program-i-corps-hubs

[3] https://venturewell.org/open2014/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Establishment-of-the-NYC-Regional.pdf

[4] https://www.nsf.gov/pubs/2020/nsf20529/nsf20529.htm

[5] https://www1.cuny.edu/mu/forum/2021/10/14/cuny-secures-historic-15-million-national-science-foundation-grant-to-lead-coalition-of-institutions-in-development-of-innovation-corps-regional-hub/

[6] https://www.diverseeducation.com/institutions/article/15279672/cunys-historic-nsf-grant-will-help-fuel-diversity-in-innovation

[7] https://innovation.ucsf.edu/entrepreneurshipcenter

[8] https://innovation.ucsf.edu/global-entrepreneurship-class

[9] https://innovation.ucsf.edu/entrepreneurs

[10] https://steveblank.com/

[11] https://www.ucsf.edu/news/2014/10/119406/nih-launches-ucsf-developed-course-life-science-entrepreneurs

[12] https://steveblank.com/2014/12/17/i-corps-at-the-nih-evidence-based-translational-medicine/

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