Lean, Mean, Startup, Machine

This paper is a final project from the NIH Foundation for Advanced Education in the Sciences course — TECH 566: Biotechnology Management


Starting up a company is a risky endeavor. From listening to the FAES 566’s course panel discussions this semester, it is clear that there are many challenges a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) will face and try to overcome while starting up and exiting his/her company. Fortunately, we also learned that there are numerous resources available to assist new entrepreneurs in developing strategies for management, funding, technology transactions, and approaches to exit, to name a few. From incubators to accelerators and other businesses that employ startup advisors, the message is apparent: One of the best resources for the prospective CEO is a subject matter expert or mentor. In this respect, one of the most renowned and experienced Silicon Valley serial-entrepreneurs, Steve Blank, teaches that a key feature to startup success is for entrepreneurs to balance product development with understanding their customers1, contrary to the mentality, “If you build it, they will come.” By applying this idea of creating and testing products that are designed around customer preferences, Eric Ries (Silicon Valley entrepreneur, author, and protégé of Steve Blank) popularized the Lean Startup movement2, originally launched by Steve. This movement promotes the idea that with up-front investment in “validated learning” (i.e. customer-driven product development), a company can quickly design/iterate product(s) to fit their customers’ needs before entering the market, thereby reducing the risk of failure after launch2.


Teams and Nodes and Sites! Oh My!

In his book, The Lean Startup, Eric Ries teaches that “Entrepreneurs are everywhere”2; a concept that challenges us to search for the pioneering innovator within ourselves. Putting this notion into effect, in 2011, the National Science Foundation (NSF) called in Steve Blank to create a better way to help their investigators commercialize NSF-funded innovations. By applying the curriculum from Steve’s Lean LaunchPad® entrepreneurship class (that he created at Stanford University)3, the Innovation Corps (I-CorpsTM) program was born 4,5,6. The NSF I-CorpsTM program is a public-private partnership that essentially transforms scientists and engineers into entrepreneurs. The mentality to think outside the laboratory is emphasized through a lean startup curriculum. In combination with the guidance and expertise of experienced entrepreneurs, scientists and engineers learn to consider the economic/societal impact and commercial applications of their basic research. Furthermore, NSF I-CorpsTM has cultivated a National Innovation Network made of three main components including Teams, Nodes, and Sites (described below).

NSF I-CorpsTM Breakdown6,7:

Team- A Principal Investigator who has received NSF funding within five years, entrepreneurial lead (graduate student or post-doctoral researcher with technical expertise), and business mentor (experienced entrepreneur).

Nodes- Regional hubs that deliver the I-CorpsTM curriculum, infrastructure, and research required to train scientists and engineers in lean startup methodology.

Sites- Similar to I-CorpsTM Nodes in that they provide the education, infrastructure, and research to support scientists and engineers in becoming I-CorpsTM Team applicants.

Provided to I-CorpsTM Teams- Teams are awarded $50,000, I-Corps curriculum, and support from experienced mentors.

Duration- Six months


 I-CorpsTM at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Beyond

The success of NSF’s I-CorpsTM program did not go unnoticed by other governmental agencies. In fact, in 2014 the NSF and NIH worked together to form the NIH Innovation Corps (I-CorpsTM) Team Training Pilot Program to accelerate biomedical research commercialization. Similar to NSF I-CorpsTM, the aim of this program was to create more opportunities to commercialize technologies funded by NIH Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) awards. In contrast to NSF I-CorpsTM, NIH I-CorpsTM Pilot ran over nine weeks. The NIH I-CorpsTM Pilot from last year is currently being evaluated8.

As a tribute to its success so far, the I-CorpsTM program is reaching even further. Just this month, the White House announced the expansion of the I-CorpsTM program with an additional eight federal agency partnerships, including the Department of Defense (DOD), the National Security Agency (NSA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) to name a few, and the program’s first statewide expansion with Ohio9.


Government “Start Ups”

NSF’s I-CorpsTM is just one initiative that is creating a startup mentality within the government. Taking these concepts even further is the Ignite Accelerator program within the IDEA Lab at the Department of Health and Human Services10. The idea behind the Ignite Accelerator is to apply lean startup methodology to governmental processes as if they were products. Imagine that government employees were entrepreneurs, their respective government agencies/offices were startup companies, and that the processes/services within each were products.  Depending on the project in question, the customer could be internal or external to the government. The goal is for government employees to identify a problematic governmental process, create a solution, determine the real ‘customer’ need (Is this the main problem/pain point ‘customers’ are experiencing?), create and iterate the minimum viable product or solution that will address the ‘customer’ need, test these solutions with ‘customers’, iterate again, and finalize the solution. The ultimate outcome of the Ignite Accelerator is to create a more efficient government, bit by bit.

Ignite Accelerator Breakdown11

Teams- One project lead and four other technically qualified members.

Provided to Ignite Teams- Three months of support to test the proposed idea (starting with a 3-day Boot Camp in Washington, D.C., $5,000 funding for the proposal, a network of innovators, mentors, and technical advisors, training in lean startup methodology, a suite of tools (technologies) not usually available to HHS staff, and final Shark Tank-like project pitch.

Duration- Three months


The Exit

In conclusion, these are exciting times to be working in the government. As a member of one team from the Winter 2015 class of the Ignite Accelerator, I can tell you that given the resources to invoke positive change allows people to make a real difference in the government and the world. This winter, teams from across HHS identified and iterated solutions to solve a variety of problems like:

  • Developing a comprehensive support initiative for a teenager’s overall healthy development versus individual programs that only target smoking or obesity for example,
  • Building a portal for scientists within the same laboratory to store and easily search for data including normally hard-to-search information from their hand-written notebooks,
  • Creating fun educational cartoons to teach scientists about and generate more awareness for Technology Transfer (the process for how to take science from the lab to the market for public benefit), or
  • Assembling simple-to-use web-based tools that make the Technology Transfer process easier for scientists, to name a few12.

As entertainment industry executive, Tom Freston once said, “Innovation is taking two things that already exist and putting them together in a new way”13. I think the government has done just that and it’s working well.


Link for the Final Presentation on Prezi.com from Tuesday, May 12, 2015




1- Steve Blank [http://steveblank.com/2012/03/05/search-versus-execute/]

2- The Lean Startup, Eric Ries [http://theleanstartup.com/]

3- Steve Blank [http://steveblank.com/2010/12/07/the-lean-launchpad-–-teaching-entrepreneurship-as-a-management-science/]

4- Steve Blank [http://steveblank.com/2015/07/20/how-we-changed-the-way-the-u-s-government-commercializes-science-part-1-of-episode-6-on-sirius-xm-channel-111-errol-arkilic/]

5- VentureWell [http://venturewell.org/i-corps/]

6- NSF Innovation-Corps Home [http://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/i-corps/]

7- NSF I-CorpsTM  Fact Sheet [http://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/i-corps/pdf/factsheet_teams.pdf]

8- The I-CorpsTM at NIH SBIR & STTR [http://sbir.cancer.gov/resource/icorps/]

9- The White House – Office of the Press Secretary – August 4, 2015 [https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/08/04/fact-sheet-president-obama-announces-new-commitments-investors-companies]

10- HHS IDEA Lab – Ignite Accelerator [http://www.hhs.gov/idealab/what-we-do/hhs-ignite/]

11- HHS IDEA Lab – Accelerating Internal Ideas [http://www.hhs.gov/idealab/what-we-do/hhs-ignite/]

12- HHS IDEA Lab Blog – HHS Ignite Winter 2015: Announcing the 13 Selected Teams [http://www.hhs.gov/idealab/2014/12/08/hhs-ignite-winter-2015-announcing-the-the-13-selected-teams/]

13- Brainy Quotes [http://brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/t/tomfreston532342.html]


 About the Author:

Laura currently serves as a post-doctoral fellow in the NIH OTT, CDC Unit where her training focuses on technology marketing, patentability recommendations, and licensing practices. Laura is also a part of the CDC/NIH team that won a Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) IDEA Lab – Ignite Accelerator award to streamline and enhance CDC technology transfer processes and inventor outreach (December 2014- April 2015). Advancing this mission at the NIH, Laura is a Project Contributor for the NIH Technology Transfer Training for NIH Scientists Group, whose mission is to develop unified Technology Transfer training for NIH scientists across all institutes and centers. She is also involved as an Ignite alumnus with the IDEA Lab’s new initiative, #HackRedTape – to promote innovation and solve problems within the government. Prior to joining the NIH OTT, Laura received her PhD in Neuroscience (August 2014) from State University of New York (SUNY) Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, NY where she studied the impact of fetal alcohol exposure on postnatal flavor preferences and its implications for alcohol addiction. During graduate school, Laura also worked with two Syracuse-based incubators and SUNY Upstate’s technology transfer office, completed a year-long interdisciplinary Technology Transactions course at Syracuse University College of Law, and volunteered with the New York State Science and Technology Law Center to provide intellectual property and market research analysis reports for prospective inventors. The translational nature of Laura’s graduate research and her concurrent experiences led her to pursue a career in technology commercialization and innovation.



  1. Jordan
      August 6, 2015

    Interesting thoughts here. The term “start-up” can seem very buzzword-y lately – so it’s important to separate those just using the term and those genuinely wishing to create a solid business idea. Thanks for sharing your insight!

  2. Dan
      August 7, 2015

    Indeed, these are exciting times to be in gov! Thanks for the post!