I-Corps gives engineers crash course in business

It’s a crash course in business skills, Peter Gebhard says, while summing up his experience so far with Innovation Corps, or I-Corps, an accelerator program supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

“That’s definitely what it is,” he says. “We are engineers and don’t have a lot, or any, really, business background.”

Gebhard is one-half of the husband and wife duo behind Animotion, an idea that is on the brink of becoming a full-fledged startup.


Animotion, which is creating a wearable device that monitors how well an animal’s joint is functioning, originated as a spinoff from a technology that was developed in a lab of Feini Qu, a dual-degree graduate student in the School of Veterinary Medicine and the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Gebhard is a programmer in the PRECISE embedded systems research group at Penn.

Gebhard and Qu had already been working with the Penn Center for Innovation (PCI) on commercializing their product. Earlier this year, when the PCI received a three-year, $300,000 grant from the NSF to instill an I-Corps site on campus, the Animotion researchers knew the business accelerator was a right fit for them.

“I think the major criticism that we get on our product is that we have these ideas of what we think people might want, but maybe we haven’t identified specific needs that exist,” Qu says. “This program so far has been really useful in helping us get out there and do just that.”

I-Corps, which launched at Penn on June 9, is teaching 15 teams—made up of academic researchers, student entrepreneurs, and business mentors—how to get their early-stage ideas ready for seed funding. For weeks, the teams, with ideas built mostly out of Penn labs, attend lectures and networking opportunities facilitated by I-Corps. The I-Corps implants a similar model at all its sites around the country.

“The lectures are helpful because we get to see what we’re doing and what we’re doing wrong right after we go out in the field,” Qu says. “A lot of the lectures are best practice and theory, but sometimes when you get out there, you forget to do what is best.”

Leveraging Penn’s expert faculty, I-Corps has also brought in numerous guest lecturers. For instance, Cynthia Dahl, a practice associate professor of law, talked about the resources available at Penn’s Detkin Intellectual Property and Technology Legal Clinic, which she runs.

“These companies are so early-stage, they probably can’t afford to hire lawyers yet,” Dahl says. “But they do need to think about legal issues to protect their technology … lawyers bring invaluable perspective to a plan.”

The remaining weeks of the program, which runs through August, will be a five-week acceleration period, explains Anjali Bhatia, a recent Wharton MBA graduate who co-founded LashBee, a company in I-Corps that is creating a unique semi-permanent eyelash extension service.

“There won’t be any more classes, but we will be expected to just work on everything,” says Bhatia.

Laurie Actman, chief operating officer at the PCI, says there will be another I-Corps cohort of 15 teams slated for this fall. The goal, she says, is to graduate at least 30 teams through the program each year while the NSF grant lasts.

“The purpose of the curriculum is really to challenge them as much as possible, to really refine and think strategically about the market, and how to position the idea or the technology,” Actman says. “PCI is really committed to contributing to the innovation ecosystem here at Penn, so the I-Corps program provides us another tool in the toolbox to do that—to expand our programming and build momentum behind all the activity growing and occurring across the University.”