The University of Texas at El Paso has been designated as a National Science Foundation (NSF) Innovation Corps (I-Corps) site, and has been awarded a three-year, $255,000 grant by the agency to bridge the colleges of Business Administration and Engineering in fostering and accelerating transition of customer-driven research into the commercial world.
The work to integrate I-Corps’ curriculum, which provides real-world, immersive learning about what it takes to successfully transfer knowledge into products and processes that benefit society, will be carried out by UTEP’s Mike Loya Center for Innovation and Commerce.
“We are excited and elated to have been selected as a National Science Foundation I-Corps site,” said Michael Garcia, lecturer and managing director of the Loya Center as well as the grant’s principal investigator (PI).
“We will be one of three such sites among the 14 University of Texas System institutions. Through this program, we will be able to help our research faculty and students learn to identify valuable product opportunities that can emerge from academic research while also gaining skills in entrepreneurship.”
The NSF’s I-Corps program prepares scientists and engineers to extend their focus beyond university laboratories and accelerates the economic and societal benefits of basic research projects that are ready to move toward commercialization.
Beginning October 1, graduate research fellows at UTEP will undergo NSF training in aspects of value proposition creation, customer discovery and business models. That knowledge will then be imparted to 20 teams comprised of a principal investigator, an industry mentor and a student entrepreneurial lead.
The curriculum will be augmented into students’ academic settings as they pursue their primary degrees.
“Faculty and students will have to get out of the building and interact with real possible customers to figure out and understand whether their research outcomes and ideas have product-market fit,” said Aaron Cervantes, director of strategic partnerships for the College of Engineering. “It is a difficult and arduous process. But, it is the realistic face of business. The most successful ventures out there are successful because they respond to a customer need. And if we want our faculty and students to excel, we need to provide them with the skills necessary to create customer-driven ventures.”
Cervantes is the grant’s co-PI. He will also be a certified I-Corps instructor. Garcia said he will be part of the effort to seed critical components of innovation and an economic development ecosystem in the El Paso region.
“We see other cities that are doing so well with regard to economic development,” Garcia said. “These cities, particularly with the startup community, have this really strong, entrepreneurial innovation ecosystem that provides strong support and education in funding, mentorship and funding for startups. We really need that here in El Paso. If we want to move our city forward economically, I-Corps is precisely the kind of thing that we need. It is a really strong step in the right direction.”