It’s all systems go for budding entrepreneurs at NUtech Ventures — with an entrepreneurial training program that is currently recruiting for its next cohort in September.
The university’s technology commercialization affiliate’s Introduction to Customer Discovery course has served aspiring University of Nebraska-Lincoln and University of Nebraska at Kearney entrepreneurs since 2019. That training was modeled on the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps program, and in 2022, NUtech Ventures was accepted into membership to the NSF’s Great Lakes I-Corps Hub. The Hub works collaboratively to build and sustain diverse and inclusive innovation networks within their region, thus offering expanded training, mentorship, investors and partnership opportunities for Nebraska participants who now have additional access to a robust regional mentor and resource network.
The program is an entrepreneurial training program that helps facilitate the transformation of invention to impact. This immersive experiential training program prepares scientists and engineers to extend their focus beyond the university laboratory — accelerating the economic and societal benefits of NSF-funded and other basic research projects that are ready to move toward commercialization. During the program, teams engage with prospective customers, partners and others in the ecosystem. To begin, participants start with a focus on validating the existence of a problem in the market that is big enough that people care about it. Then they try to move to their own solution (technology/product/service) to see if it could be a solution for that space, and if there is a consumer market.
NUtech Ventures’ Joy Eakin, entrepreneurship program manager, and Zane Gernhart, senior technology manager, are active organizers and course instructors at Nebraska and collaborate with the Great Lakes I-Corps Hub. Both mentor cohorts of participants in large group classes, small group workshops and one-on-one coaching sessions. This format allows for personalized feedback for each participant, as they try to understand the problems their potential customers face..
“Our participants come in with some idea of how they would structure their businesses, and we are able to help them shape how they should move forward,” said Gernhart, adding that the training also helps make potential founders aware of potential pitfalls in new company formation, including technologies that don’t meet a commercial need, timing, marginal niches, lack of funding and inexperienced management.
“It’s so rewarding to work closely with our participants and other coaches to teach aspiring entrepreneurs the skills they will need to be successful, including how to gather data, speak to customers and think about problems and solutions. And when necessary, we help them refine or pivot their ideas,” Eakin said.
The program’s participants say they are grateful for the guidance. Jackson Stansell, founder and chief executive officer of Sentinel Fertigation, completed the training in spring 2021.
“I would certainly recommend N-ICD to anyone interested in developing themselves personally and gaining insights into the commercial potential of a concept or technology,” Stansell said. “N-ICD instructors push you to think about problems from a commercial perspective. They encourage your development as an entrepreneur and challenge you to achieve. One of the greatest strengths of the program is the diversity of the cohort. Seeing how other teams in the cohort are approaching customer discovery and what they are learning from their interviews helps accelerate the growth process.”
Sheryl N. Sierra, a doctoral student in agronomy in plant breeding and genetics, agreed.
“My experience with ICD greatly shaped my perspective in the business potential of the current research I am involved with at the university,” Sierra said. “The most rewarding part of being a participant was the opportunity to talk to our expert ICD coaches/instructors who guide us along the way. It’s nice to discover great insights from the barley industry leaders, brewers, distillers and other stakeholders that we interviewed, and it’s so pleasant to share a little bit about the research I am involved in with our plant breeding program at UNL and explore the commercial potential of our technology/research.”
Sierra’s favorite part of the training was the interview phase, where participants interacted with stakeholders and others.
“It was delightful to hear the different stories and perspectives of the stakeholders I met as I navigate the business potential of the research I am doing,” Sierra said. “The most valuable lesson I learned from the course was the importance of interaction. It is important to talk to people who have experiences in the field you want to venture and learn as much as possible from their experiences and insights prior to starting the business.”
Eligible Nebraska participants who complete the local program are invited to apply to the I-Corps National Teams program. Each accepted team is awarded a $50,000 NSF grant, which supports the team’s program participation including stipends and expenses for virtual and in-person customer discovery.
If interested in being part of the next Nebraska I-Corps cohort, contact Joy Eakin at email@example.com.