I-Corps Northeast Hub accelerates impacts of research and technology in 2023

Written by
Alaina O'Regan, Office of the Dean for Research, Princeton University
Feb. 29, 2024
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When researchers at Princeton University discovered a sustainable way to extract lithium – a mineral skyrocketing in demand due to its widespread applications in phones, electric vehicles and other technologies – they turned to the Northeast I-Corps Hub’s entrepreneurship training program for support in developing their innovation into a startup. Now, through their company PureLi, they aim to help the nation advance toward net zero emissions by 2050.

PureLi is one of the 185 research-based teams trained by the National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded Innovation-Corps (I-Corps) Northeast Hub, which helps researchers learn how to transform scientific discoveries and innovations into real-world products and services. 

The Northeast I-Corps Hub, now in its second year, trained 819 individuals from across its member universities as well as numerous other researchers from regional institutions and the wider community.

Experienced mentors and instructors play an active role in weekly coaching, helping teams network and test their hypotheses and business models, and teaching researchers to understand how their innovation could fill an unmet societal need. The Hub engaged 64 mentors and instructors last year, 48% of which were women.

Through the Hub’s four-week Propelus program, 185 teams of researchers explored how their discoveries can help potential customers and meet industry needs as a startup or venture. Each participant earned up to $3,000 in funding from the NSF.

Twenty-six research teams from the Northeast Hub were accepted to the prestigious national I-Corps Teams program, where they delved deeper into the customer discovery process and earned a $50,000 NSF grant. Researchers from the Northeast Hub earned a total of $1.3 million in funding through national I-Corps Teams.

For researchers interested in innovation but who were not quite ready for the four-week program, the Hub hosted half-day Novus events designed to introduce participants to I-Corps and provide opportunities to network with other aspiring innovators. This in-person program had 271 participants last year at campuses throughout the Northeast.

Commitment to inclusive innovation

At the forefront of the Northeast Hub’s mission to grow the societal and economic benefits arising from scientific research is a commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA).

“We're always going to make sure that everyone is represented, that we are inclusive, and that DEIA is impactful in our hub,” said Julius Korley, co-director of the I-Corps Northeast Hub and associate vice president of the Office of Economic Innovation and Partnerships at the University of Delaware. “And we're not just talking about it, we're illustrating it in everything that we do.”

This includes cultivating a diverse mentor network of accomplished individuals who've successfully navigated the startup landscape, ensuring that Hub instructors and mentors reflect the rich diversity of the region, and actively recruiting and uplifting voices that have been historically sidelined in entrepreneurship. 

In collaboration with member institutions, the Northeast Hub has forged meaningful relationships with minority-serving institutions (MSI’s) to enrich its community of innovators. In 2023, the Hub supported 30 regional I-Corps teams who came from state recognized MSI’s.

In addition, the Hub established the I-Corps Fellowship program to create pathways for students – especially those from underrepresented groups – to grow their knowledge of innovation and entrepreneurship activities. The Hub engaged 10 Fellows last year.

Expanding a bustling ecosystem

Along with its flagship regional programs, the Northeast Hub hosted free workshops and events to build community, support recruitment, and offer a variety of training to both experienced and aspiring innovators at all levels.

One workshop series, “Innovating Together,” features experts from entrepreneurship programs throughout the region who engage with researchers on opportunities available to them outside of and in tandem with I-Corps.

Last year’s Innovating Together series included panelists from Venturewell, Small business development centers, University City Science Center, Cleantech Open Northeast and the Innovation Space.

In another series, seasoned entrepreneurs and investors presented 30 minute talks on topics surrounding early stage ventures, followed by audience Q&A, for researchers at all levels to learn how to navigate the world of entrepreneurship. Topics in this “Entrepreneurship Essentials'' series included crafting a compelling pitch deck, navigating government small business (SBIR/STTR) grants, developing a prototype to excite customers and investors, and exploring the ways that startups raise capital.

Other Hub events such as info sessions, quarterly assemblies, and the first Northeast Hub annual meeting, held in October, brought scientists and entrepreneurs together to learn about the benefits and impacts of I-Corps, strengthen connections between universities and industry, and support the growth of the region’s innovation ecosystem.

The Northeast Hub welcomed Drexel University and Yale University as members in 2023, and began leveraging each institution’s deep expertise in experiential learning and entrepreneurial training to broaden the reach and impact of Hub programs.

As of February 2024, the University of Connecticut has joined the Hub as its newest member.

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