More than half a million patent applications arrive at the U.S. Patent Office each year, but how many make it into tangible innovations that benefit society? On October 18th, researchers and entrepreneurs came together at Princeton University to find answers to this challenge at the first-annual meeting of the I-Corps Northeast Hub.
“Innovation is not just about creating something new,” said Dr. Calvin Mackie, the event's keynote speaker who shared his personal journey which led him to co-found the nonprofit STEM NOLA to inspire young people to see themselves as future innovators. “Innovation is about taking something new and putting it out into the world to help people.”
The I-Corps Northeast Hub is part of a nationwide National Science Foundation-funded network of universities formed to accelerate the societal impact of federally funded research – delivering benefits in health care, the environment, technology and other areas – while building skills and opportunities among researchers from all backgrounds.
Attendees gathered in the auditorium as Christina Pellicane, lead instructor for the I-Corps Northeast Hub, welcomed guests with a brief introduction to I-Corps. She noted that 37% of attendees had never participated in an I-Corps program, and 47% were not affiliated with a Hub member university.
Pellicane highlighted the NSF I-Corps Northeast Hub’s core values of equity, diversity, inclusion and accessibility. The Hub includes ten universities, and serves researchers and innovators throughout the region – participants don’t need to be affiliated with any university to take part in Hub programs.
One of the main offerings of the Hub is its Propelus I-Corps training, a four-week long program that takes innovators through a customer discovery process to help them find out if their innovation serves a societal need. Participants of this program earn a $3,000 NSF grant.
Instructors from the Northeast I-Corps Hub also help teach at the national I-Corps Teams program, a seven-week long innovation bootcamp where many regional participants go on to continue developing their innovation and earn a $50,000 NSF grant.
Dr. Julius Korley, co-director of the I-Corps Northeast Hub, said the Hub continues to be a leader in promoting diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA) throughout the Northeast Hub and in broader entrepreneurship communities. “I went through I-Corps back in 2012, and there were no instructors that looked like me, there were no women instructors at that time,” he said. “Our Hub is doing a huge lift in changing that.”
“In every subcommittee that we have, it paginates throughout that we're always going to make sure that everyone is represented, that we are inclusive, and that DEIA is impactful in our hub,” Korley continued. “And we're not just talking about it, but we're illustrating it in everything that we do.”
Korley then introduced Mackie, president and CEO of STEM NOLA, award-winning mentor, inventor, author, former engineering professor, award-winning author and internationally renowned speaker.
Through the lens of his own background as a young person who “started with nothing” and became a successful entrepreneur, and through his experience as an educator, Mackie emphasized the vitality of engaging students in science at a young age. “We’ve got to give every kid in this country not only access, but an entrepreneurship mindset that says that no matter where they started, where they come from or their socioeconomic background, they could start off with an idea and create something that transforms not only their life, but the world,” Mackie said.
The day’s agenda interspersed the sessions with short, purposeful networking breaks, where attendees could explore the posters on display from teams that have taken the I-Corps trainings, as well as meet representatives from entrepreneurship organizations throughout the region.
Many graduates of the I-Corps training programs build successful companies. Earlier this year, Kirsten Hund Blair participated in the Propelus Healthcare regional program – a specialized variation of the Northeast Hub’s four-week training program designed for enterprises with innovations in medicine or healthcare. She and co-founders had previously launched Lambent Data, whose software platform and app OurREACH™ equips healthcare providers and patients in ways that improve outcomes in health and social drivers of health and reduce costs. She and team participated in I-Corps as part of growing their work and impact. “The I-Corps teaching, mentoring, and administrative staff has been excellent," she said. “And it’s been really wonderful to interact with fellow entrepreneurs during the program and today. Everyone here is really welcoming, and it all gives such a great sense of community.”
Panels featured I-Corps leaders, partners, innovators and investors throughout the region discussing a range of topics such as how to engage graduate students and postdoctoral researchers in innovation, careers beyond the university, and the role of innovation and entrepreneurship in university promotion and tenure.
One of the afternoon panels, titled “Next steps in the innovation ecosystem: on-ramps and off-ramps,” featured experts from regional entrepreneurship programs who shared their advice for bringing innovations closer to solving real-world problems and creating startups. “Definitely keep in touch with the network that you have, and foster those relationships,” said Yazmin Feliz, lead mentor for the Northeast I-Corps Hub and session panelist. “Let's say you had an industry mentor or an amazing teaching team. At the end of the program, when they say, ‘feel free to keep in touch with us,’ they actually mean it.”
The late afternoon brought a fireside chat focused on how innovation is part of the future of graduate student education. Rodney Priestley, co-director of the I-Corps Northeast Hub and dean of the Graduate School at Princeton University, led the discussion between Dr. Jeffrey Robinson, I-Corps Northeast Hub research lead and provost of Rutgers University-Newark, and Dr. Tabbetha Dobbins, dean of the Graduate School at Rowan University and a professor of physics and astronomy.
Priestley, Princeton's Pomeroy and Betty Perry Smith Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, observed that the shift in thinking about the academic “research ecosystem” to a greater focus on the “innovation ecosystem” has a natural impact on graduate education. He asked the panel how they think universities can encourage development of an innovation and entrepreneurial mindset for graduate students, and incentivize academic researchers to pursue entrepreneurship.
Dobbins said that an academic advisor’s propensity towards innovation and entrepreneurship will dictate whether or not their student will have that same inclination. “So the first thing that universities should be doing is making sure that there is a mixture of faculty members who are both at the translational boundary and sort of more innovative space, and still making space for those who are doing the foundational and fundamental research,” she said.
Robinson echoed the sentiment that innovation and academic research are not mutually exclusive career paths, and emphasized the importance of imparting that to graduate students who are figuring out their next steps. “You can be passionate about science, and at the same time want to see it make an impact,” Robinson said. “And perhaps one way to do that is through innovation and entrepreneurship.”
Korley’s closing remarks echoed his earlier sentiment that increased diversity brings greater success. “I'm going to challenge us to really push it and do things that haven’t yet been done by anyone,” Korley said in his closing remarks. “We're already changing the face of mentors and instructors by huge percentages. I truly believe in my core that I-Corps should look more like the world, and research has shown that when you have diversity in the boardroom, it's just better business.”
The National Science Foundation (NSF) Innovation Corps (I-CorpsTM) Northeast Hub is part of a nationwide NSF-funded network of universities formed to accelerate the economic impact of federally funded research – delivering benefits in health care, the environment, technology and other areas – while building skills and opportunities among researchers from all backgrounds, including those historically underrepresented in entrepreneurship.
Princeton University is the principal institution in the Hub, along with 9 partner institutions including: the University of Delaware, Rutgers University, Lehigh University, Temple University, New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), Rowan University, Delaware State University, Drexel University and Yale University. The Hub will expand by adding new partner institutions each year.
See our photo gallery, speakers bios and more at the annual meeting page.