Can Startup Guru Steve Blank Help Save the Sciences?

Photographer: Earl Mcgehee/WireImage

Steve Blank is teaching science entrepreneurs how to take their lab-created products into the market.

After eight technology startups, several books and a decade of teaching, some would say that Steve Blank has turned the art of creating a tech company into a science. Still, he never thought his skills would be desired by actual scientists.

That changed last summer when the 58-year-old received a call while driving to teach a class at Stanford University. It was from a member of the National Science Foundation, who had been following his blog and reading the course materials from his Lean LaunchPad class for aspiring entrepreneurs.

The NSF, desperate to bolster the country’s global competitiveness, wanted Blank’s help to commercialize some of the projects that were being created in the nation’s top universities. So three months later, Blank found himself leading a class for the newly created NSF Innovation Corps (I-Corps), surrounded by 21 teams of grantees looking to take their lab-created products into the market.

“These are not the guys with hoodies and flipflops,” said Blank, referring to the preferred attire of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. “They’re doing hardcore science.”

This week, Blank was at it again with the second installment of the I-Corps class, which he’s teaching along with a pair of Silicon Valley venture capitalists. For the next eight weeks, some 25 groups will be working on projects ranging from chemicals for hydrofracking and sensor tools for irrigation systems to dermatological technology and wall-climbing robots.

Each team has three members — an entrepreneurial lead (student), a principal investigator (research scientist and former professor) and a mentor with industry expertise. The program, which pays $50,000 per team, starts with three days of classes on the Stanford campus, where groups present their product, get feedback and then get to work.

Blank has a signature definition of work: get out of the lab, find your customers and talk to them. Technology is cool, science projects are great and finished products are exciting. But if nobody wants to pay for them, you can’t create a company. In the first class, the 21 teams took heed, speaking to more than 2,000 customers.

The goal is “to figure out who you’re solving a problem for and why do they care,” Blank tells the students. “I used to think for the first 15 years of my career that the only reason customers existed was to write a check for me.”

Following the three-day seminar, the students will participate in five weekly webinars and then return to Stanford for demos. To Blank’s surprise, 19 teams in the first batch decided to keep going after the program ended, trying to turn their projects into businesses.

For NSF, this is just the beginning. The foundation is funding 100 teams this year, a $5 million investment, and plans to increase that commitment in 2013, said Rathindra DasGupta, a program director for NSF in Arlington, Virginia. The next two classes this year will be taught at the University of Michigan and Georgia Tech University.

“The NSF funds lots of research,” DasGupta said. “Here’s an opportunity to commercialize some of that fundamental research.”

And a chance for Blank to find out if his startup methodology translates to the sciences.

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