NSF program developing innovation, WSU entrepreneurs

By Mary Catherine Frantz, intern, Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture

nsf icorps_logoPULLMAN, Wash. – Kevin Gray, a chemical engineering instructor at Washington State University, had a revolutionary idea.

Gray is developing new tools for the detection and treatment of cancer – a technology that enables rapid development and clinical entry of cancer drugs, with reduced dosage and fewer side effects.

There’s just one problem. How can he take his idea and make it a successful, useful product?

Gray took his idea to WSU Innovation Corps (WSU I-Corps), a revolutionary program that allows faculty and students from all majors to gain skills and resources to succeed in the world of entrepreneurship. During WSU I-Corps’ eight-week program, teams of 3-5 people discover whether their idea or product is something that will be profitable in the marketplace.

Gray teamed up with the smartest people he knew, Afshin Khan and Alexander Brown, to create an I-Corp Team. I-Corps teams collaborate in weekly sessions to refine their business models, discuss lessons learned and prepare for further customer discovery. Participants also conduct interviews with potential customers and industry insiders to help refine their business ideas. Each team receives access to up to $2,500 for prototyping, travel, attending conferences and other needs related to refining the team’s business model.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) developed the I-Corps program in 2011 to help move academic research to the marketplace. In 2016, NSF provided WSU with a three-year grant that also designates WSU I-Corps as one of 51 universities that are part of the NSF National Innovation Network.

Led by the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture, in partnership with the Carson College of Business and the College of Arts and Sciences, the university is using the LEAN Accelerator Program curriculum to teach entrepreneurship skills while encouraging interdisciplinary collaboration, industry mentorship, and alumni engagement.

Problems, solutions, needs

“You aren’t asking what the problem is; you’re asking if the world needs a solution to that problem. A product is valuable because people want it,” Gray said.

The I-Corps process provides a structured way to look at an idea and receive an objective idea of whether the idea has potential for a profitable business. Although many ideas do not become lasting businesses, there are many great end points to their projects and participants learn a valuable skill.

Rick Lytell of I-Corps Team Klar Scientific said, “It doesn’t teach you how to be a marketer, it gives you tools to gather the information you need to be successful.”

This program teaches members how to marshal resources and create something out of a passion or idea. It arms entrepreneurs with the resources and training to get their idea into the community and market for their product. This skill set makes them more employable, as they are challenged to think in the big picture about the benefit their product has to society. This lean thinking is a valuable perspective in grant writing, and having gone through an NSF-funded program makes it easier for ideas to gain funding in the future.

Changing perspective

Participants cite the change in perspective as one of the most significant benefits of WSU I-Corps. Speaking with potential customers and investors provided new insights into potential functions and applications that they had never considered.

“You know there are other standpoints you need to consider, but you never really experience them. The moment that you go there, the world of entrepreneurship becomes real,” Gray said

Gray’s I-Corps Team, Chimeric Designs, has gone onto present their research at conferences throughout the country, including Life Science Innovation Northwest Conference in Seattle and the BIO International Convention in Seattle. They have received grants to continue their research from the Carson College of Business and Washington Research Foundation. They are currently working to patent and produce their technology.

Open to anyone from any major

WSU I-Corps director Travis Woodland emphasizes that this program is something that anyone from any major can play a role in, regardless of whether they have previous experience or not. WSU I-Corps directors put members into teams in order to match participants with different experiences. Entrepreneurship is a way to turn your skills and knowledge into an impact. It is all about what you are passionate about.

“If you have a new idea, a good idea, this program can help you turn your passion into something impactful,” Woodland said.

All WSU students, alumni, faculty and staff are encouraged to participate in WSU I-Corps. Come to the WSU I-Corps Open House November 27 at 12 pm in PACCAR 201 to learn more about the program, or visit the WSU I-Corps website.



  • Tina Hilding, communications director, Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture, 509-335-5095, thilding@wsu.edu

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