I recently talked with Susan Baxter, Ph.D., Executive Director of CSUPERB, to find out how the CSU I-Corps program is impacting the local biotech community.

“The CSU I-Corps program had 34 teams state-wide in the first year,” said Dr. Baxter. “We work with student-based teams in the fall and the faculty-led teams in the spring.” Each team has three members and works for three months to evolve a business model. “The student teams are made up of scientists and engineers, and are required to have a business student,” said Dr. Baxter. “The faculty teams include a faculty member, a post-doc or graduate student, or even an undergrad.”

Key to connecting the academic teams to industry is the participation of mentors. Each team requires an industry mentor to inform on how commercialization of their idea might proceed. “Mentors meet with the team every other week or so, advising on the business model, feasibility, and commercialization,”Dr. Baxter said. “The industry mentor helps the teams develop hypotheses around a business model, corrects their thinking, and identifies blind spots. The teams conduct 30-40 interviews with customers, experts, and key opinion leaders about the feasibility of their commercialization idea. Mentors play a large role in helping teams make connections and find people to talk to.”

Another way mentors can participate is to serve on evaluation panels. “In the end the teams present their current business model canvas and talk about the learning that got them there. The evaluation panel is looking to see how much they learned, if they understand what they learned, and if they have a biotech idea that sounds feasible,” said Dr. Baxter. “The evaluation panel gives them an honest appraisal of their chances to commercialize their idea, next steps, and milestones to mature their idea. It culminates in a ‘go, no-go’ decision. If they get a ‘go,’ the panel might recommend they pursue additional funding from NSF or consider partnering options. If they get a ‘no,’ the panel may make recommendations to go back to the lab and perform additional proof-of-concept work before they are ready to go out and talk to the market.”

Half the teams move on in a multitude of ways. The teams are eligible to apply for the broader NSF I-Corps program where they can win $50,000 to continue the commercialization process. A handful will go on to put in SBIR or STTR grant proposals. Some of the student teams have raised significant angel financing. Dr. Baxter said one fall 2014 CSU I-Corps team incorporated as a company. Another is taking orders and selling product, based on customer discovery they did three years ago. Some mentors for the teams that move on end up being scientific advisors to the company or venture.

“NSF has found that teams that go through I-Corps have a better success rate in SBIR and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grant competition,” said Dr. Baxter. “It gives them a better view of the market.”