Sept. 8, 2022

NDSU named lead institution for $14 million NSF I-Corps Hub


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Supported with a $14 million National Science Foundation grant, NDSU will establish a multi-institutional Great Plains Innovation Corps (I-Corps) Hub.

NDSU has been awarded a $14 million grant over five years from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to establish a multi-institutional Great Plains Innovation Corps (I-Corps) Hub that will provide immersive, entrepreneurial training for scientists and engineers with the goal of moving ideas to commercialization.

The NSF’s I-Corps program began in 2011 with the goal to successfully train an entrepreneurial workforce while bringing cutting-edge technologies quickly to market and nurturing an innovation ecosystem. The program’s two-month training is experiential and immersive and helps prepare scientists extend their focus beyond the university laboratory and accelerate the economic and societal benefits of NSF-funded research projects.

“Our Carnegie R1 research classification shows that we are already among the top research universities in the nation – continuing to nurture and grow that culture is among my top priorities,” said NDSU President David Cook. “This support from the National Science Foundation shows how the ingenuity of our faculty and students at NDSU will develop the inventors and entrepreneurs of tomorrow.”

Cook added, “NDSU is leading this development through multiple efforts on campus including leadership from the Colleges of Engineering and Business, the Office of Multicultural Affairs, and from our fellow universities in North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Nebraska. Congratulations to the team on their success.”

Michael Kessler, dean of engineering at NDSU and principal investigator for the program, shared the Hub’s vision of connecting the pioneering and entrepreneurial spirit of the Great Plains with the national deep tech ecosystem. “This region has lagged behind other places in the country in transforming intellectual property into new ventures, so this is an excellent opportunity to expand the geography of innovation. We are excited to lead the partnership with the other top research universities in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Wyoming.”

NSF I-Corps are currently organized into regional Hubs across the nation, with five Hub awards made in 2021. Each Hub consists of a lead institution and seven or more partner institutions. The Hubs consist of universities, researchers, established entrepreneurs, local and regional entrepreneurial communities, and federal agencies. The new Great Plains Hub is part of a group of five additional Hubs announced by the NSF on Sept. 8, 2022. In addition to NDSU, the new hubs are led by Arizona State University, Cornell University, The University of Texas at Austin, and Vanderbilt University.

David Grewell, NDSU professor and chair of industrial and manufacturing engineering and director of the Center for Bioplastics and Biocomposites (CB2) – an NSF I/UCRC (industry/university cooperative research center) – will serve as the director of the Great Plains I-Corps Hub, oversee the Hub activities, and coordinate efforts of all partner institutions. “As a regional Hub, it’s critical that multiple institutions are successfully integrated to ensure coverage across the entire region and to represent the specific needs of their respective areas. NDSU’s experience at leading the CB2 center provides a unique perspective on how to successfully bring together the multiple institutions in the Hub,” he said.

Grewell continued, “The I-Corps program has a proven record of being an economic catalyst. The team of institutions that represent the Great Plains region was highly cooperative and enthusiastic during the proposal concept development and I have absolute confidence that the Hub will quickly grow on many levels and the region will benefit from its economic impacts.”

The Hub will consist of seven partner programs, each bringing unique strengths and benefits:

  • The University of North Dakota
  • South Dakota State University
  • South Dakota School of Mines and Technology
  • Dakota State University
  • The University of South Dakota
  • The University of Wyoming
  • The University of Nebraska Omaha

Colleen Fitzgerald, vice president of research for NDSU believes the success of the Great Plains Region Hub will drive future growth. “Through the leadership of Dean Kessler and Dr. Grewell, the Hub will inject new vibrancy into our ecosystem and lead to new startups, new jobs, and more for North Dakota and the Great Plains,” she said.

I-Corps hubs provide training to research teams to help them bring their ideas from the laboratory to the marketplace. Each I-Corps team has an Entrepreneurial Lead (EL), an Industry Mentor (IM), and a Technical Lead (TL). Over the course of eight weeks, the teams receive entrepreneurial education, mentoring, and funding to accelerate their fundamental research into emerging products and services that can attract subsequent third-party funding.

NDSU has demonstrated efforts to direct research toward entrepreneurship by offering undergraduate classes such as Entrepreneurship for Engineers and has current faculty with experience serving on I-Corps teams. NDSU researchers Chad Ulven and Jessica Vold reflected on their previous experience of being members of I-Corps teams.

“The experience I gained was career changing,” said Ulven, NDSU professor and interim chair of mechanical engineering. “After going through the I-Corp program, I started looking at research opportunities much differently. I began envisioning the value proposition and broader use case of anything I could potentially develop before even getting started.”

Vold, NDSU assistant professor of engineering entrepreneurship and innovation, said, “The I-Corps methodologies really show academics like myself how to truly listen to stakeholders and build empathy for their daily activities so we can tailor our innovations to make the biggest impact we can on society.”

Onnolee Nordstrom, NDSU associate professor of management and marketing and Ozbun Chair of Entrepreneurship, currently teaches and manages entrepreneurship programs at NDSU. She said that the Hub will bring many opportunities. “Entrepreneurs are the lifeblood of a thriving economy, and innovation is the key to staying ahead in a globally competitive world. By educating local students, researchers, and faculty about early-stage opportunity identification and connecting them with the resources needed to consider translation, the I-Corps Hub will create possibility, energy, and a larger pool of innovators capable of developing and pursuing new ideas.

Nordstrom also pointed out how the Hub will help equip tomorrow’s workforce and provide a source of new ideas, products, and services. “Students and post-docs who complete the I-Corps program will enter the workforce with an entrepreneurial mindset and knowledge about how to develop and pursue innovation," she said. "Being able to access a workforce like this will be extremely beneficial to everyone.”

In addition to Nordstrom, Ahmad Al Asady, assistant professor of management; Dan Hsu, associate professor of management; and Josh Marineau, associate professor of management and marketing, will be on the Hub’s research team.

Jaclynn Davis Wallette, director of multicultural programs at NDSU and DEI lead for the Great Plains Hub, noted how the program will open doors to all entrepreneurs. “Everyone in the NDSU Office of Multicultural Programs looks forward to connecting diverse students from NDSU and its partner institutions with the opportunity to participate in the Hub’s activities and programs. By seeking direction on the needs of groups, including the tribal communities in the Great Plains region, we will create new access for individuals to an entrepreneurial program like I-Corps,” she said.

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