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I-Corps at the NIH: What we learned and how it can help you obtain grants and grow your business!

So, you are contemplating your newest great idea for a product and are seeking investment ideally through the SBIR program. To write a strong proposal, there are several key questions to consider beyond technical feasibility.

How have you validated your market? If you plan to partner with pharma, do you know that they will

buy it? Will Angels or Venture Capitalists invest in it? Do you know your Value Proposition? What is your Product-Market fit?

These questions may seem abstract at this point but think about it, do you really want to build something that no one will buy? Even if your goal is to cure a devastating disease, the reality is, unless you are independently wealthy, you will need cash and partners to progress through the clinic and to market. Once on the market, you will need doctors to prescribe your medicine and insurance companies to cover it.

Fortunately, NIH and NSF offer a program, I-Corps, to help you answer these questions! If you have been awarded a Phase I SBIR grant through NIH or NSF, chances are you are eligible to apply for the I-Corps program as an administrative supplement and we encourage you to do so ( If you are interested in I-Corps, you can also check out this NIH webinar which covers the program in detail

But what if you have not received a grant? Or maybe you want to pre-vet your technology in advance of grant submission. What can you do? In fact, we recently did just that using what we learned through the I-Corps program in 2017. The most valuable lesson we learned from the program is the importance of talking with your potential, or existing customers, even if your product is still in the conception stage; in fact, especially if you are at the conception stage!

Specifically, we used some of the basic I-Corps tools to do research before submitting an NSF grant. We spoke with about 50 experts in the field and learned that the product we were planning to develop was going to have a challenging customer-base and limited market. Through the interview process, we identified a new market with pain points we could easily address by slight modification of the original product. We have a stronger product and proposal because of it. We don’t know yet if the grant will be funded, but if it is, we know we have customers who will buy it!

Below are a few key steps you can follow in advance of submitting your next SBIR grant. We include a series of short videos where you can learn about this process directly from the expert, Steve Blank. It is also a nice preview of what you learn in the full program.

Step 1 Define your idea: The program replaces a formal business plan by the so-named business model canvas (BMC). Here you will find a blank copy of the business model canvas for your personal use Many of the questions on the canvas are important information for your first SBIR grant. In fact, NSF uses many of the BMC terms in its request for proposal, so it is helpful to have this information flushed out before you submit. For example, what is the Value Proposition for your product?

Like any well-designed experiment, you simply start with an initial hypothesis. Put it all on paper. What do you think will work and why? Try to flush out as many details as possible. Yes, it will change, but you need to start somewhere. Before getting started, it might be helpful to watch the following videos by Steve Blank.

Helpful Videos

Step 2 Plan and Identify: Identify experts who can inform you about your Value Proposition. Start writing interview questions, work with your team to identify what exactly it is that you want to learn. The more organized you are going into each interview the more you will get out of each conversation you have.

Helpful Videos covering this process called Customer Discovery:

Step 3 Interview, Interview, Interview: Now it’s time to start talking to people, in person if possible. Don’t be afraid to allow the interviews to change your ideas. This can be a frustrating part of the process. It takes trust to allow your ideas to grow and change. From our experience, this is when the first big deviations from your original idea can start to happen. You may identify a new market and a new group of people to interview. Stick with talking to all people who come to mind, even the seemingly unhelpful conversation can help you organize yourself later. At the end of all our interview we find it helpful to ask for introduction to additional experts.

Helpful Videos:

Step 4 Making Changes: Go back to the drawing board. What did you learn? What do you want to change? Identify new people to talk to. Use this step to start making edits to your idea. This revision will be imperative to your next round of talks. Remember it is always a good idea to keep talking even after your grant is submitted, in case you re-submit, or you may even identify an idea for a new grant. We did!

Helpful Videos:

Step 5 Do it all again: Repeat the process until you think you have the best version of your idea. By following these steps, it should help ensure that your grant is not only a novel idea but will solve the need or needs of your customers.

This process has become imperative to our grant writing and product development method. We hope you find this blog a helpful resource. We also hope you consider participating in the I-Corps program after your grant is awarded. The instructors and program have a lot to offer and this blog is a sampling to help you get your first grant! Team Zenobia uses our I-Corps learning daily.

Example of how customer discover helped us improve our products:

Because of I-Corps we were able to take our specific learnings and revamp our product line. One of the biggest take away was customers needed assistance when obtaining preliminary data for their grants. From this learning we created an affordable single use version of our fragment library. This affordable single-use fragment library provides our customers a product that aids them in identifying feasibility of hits that will be identified for assay validation. We also offer services such as crystallization feasibility, and binding measurements to validate direct engagement of hits with the target of interest. Please contact us for additional information on these products or questions about the I-Corps program or customer discovery process. And, if you do get accepted into I-Corps, yes we will serve as an interview!

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