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NIH and NSF team up to accelerate bench-to-marketplace transitions

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF) are teaming up to help researchers commercialize new biomedical discoveries. Researchers who are part of the new I-Corps at NIH pilot program will participate in a nine-week boot camp where they will meet with business experts and potential customers. I-Corps at NIH is the newest outgrowth of the NSF's Innovation Corps (I-Corps) private-public partnership program, which helps commercialize selected federally funded research projects.

The I-Corps at NIH "boot camp" will provide researchers with training and mentorship from experts in the biomedical industry. Participants will learn how to protect their intellectual property and "how to build scalable business models around new technologies they're developing for the detection and treatment of disease," according to Michael Weingarten, who directs the National Cancer Institute's Small Business Innovation Research Development Center. They also will have the opportunity to interact with potential customers, which will help researchers validate the potential commercial possibilities for their discoveries.

Steve Blank, who developed the original NSF I-Corps curriculum and is involved in creating the I-Corps at NIH program, explains why he thinks this type of program is needed on his blog. The gist is that the traditional view of how translational medicine works is inaccurate. The common view is that researchers first collect ample data showing that their discovery is potentially therapeutically useful, after which the innovation moves into the commercialization phase. According to Blank, the reality is that commercial questions, such as "Is this product clinically useful?" or "Who are the customers?" can actually impact the biological hypotheses, and testing these hypotheses may mean returning to the lab. That is why Blank, and the I-Corps program, suggest that technology development and commercialization occur simultaneously (as shown on a nice flowchart on his blog).

Biomedical researchers who have Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer "phase one" awards through one of the NIH's participating agencies can apply for the I-Corps at NIH program. The fall 2014 pilot will include 24 groups. Participating agencies are the National Cancer Institute, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences.

The I-Corps at NIH program is intriguing. It also has a high potential for success because it is built off the existing NSF program, which has trained more than 300 groups with resulting product developments ranging from a treatment for dry mouth [pdf] to new microdisplay technology. Expanding this success into health-related research makes a lot of sense. Certainly any program that can help expedite the process of getting potentially lifesaving discoveries into the hands of patients is a good thing. Indeed, it might be fruitful for an I-Corps-like program to target research that is in earlier stages, especially given Blank's idea that commercialization and research are iterative processes. Perhaps giving researchers exposure to how the biomedical marketplace works early on could lead to even more translational discoveries.

For more information on the program, check out this webinar about I-Corps on July 2.