Spring I-Corps program sets up early-stage ideas for seed funding

Four master’s students in the Integrated Product Design program created the idea for Cobi, an office robot that boosts employee morale, during PennApps in the fall. Now they are testing the product’s viability through the most recent round of Innovation Corps, or I-Corps, an accelerator program for University startups.

“What’s valuable is there’s a structure in the I-Corps classes where there is hypothesis-driven testing,” says Jono Sanders, server engineer for Cobi.

That very testing has already pushed Sanders and his team to pivot their project—at least in terms of Cobi’s target market.

“We felt at first that because of the company culture, Cobi would resonate with startups most,” explains Adriana Vazquez, Cobi’s design engineer. “Through the interview process that I-Corps encourages, we quickly discovered that startups are not the right size company for us. It’s larger companies that are slightly older that showed more interest in Cobi.”

I-Corps, created with a $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation and led by the Penn Center for Innovation (PCI), launched on campus last summer. Its first cohort graduated the likes of Animotion, which makes a wearable device that monitors how well an animal’s joint is functioning, and LashBee, a company that makes semi-permanent eyelash extensions. Anjali Bhatia, a recent Wharton MBA graduate and LashBee co-founder, says her company has grown “tremendously” since I-Corps. Since August, LashBee has seen more than 600 clients.

“We use the design-thinking approach from I-Corps every step of the way,” Bhatia says. “The lessons we learned were incredibly helpful in getting us launched.”

The PCI’s goal with the I-Corps program this spring is to teach the 16 teams involved how to get their early-stage ideas ready for seed funding. The teams attend planned lectures and networking opportunities, and meet weekly with I-Corps instructors and mentors to share and build on their companies’ progress. At the end of the program, each team receives $2,500 to continue market research.

New to I-Corps this time around is corporate partner PwC, which is delivering two training sessions and hosting a showcase of all the teams during Philly Tech Week in April. Laurie Actman, chief operating officer for PCI, says there is also an influx of participants from the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Perelman School of Medicine in this I-Corps group—significantly more compared to the first cohort.

UPstart company PolyAurum is just one that touches on both engineering and medicine. Created by faculty members from both schools, PolyAurum develops and commercializes gold nanoparticles to use in diagnosis and treatment of disease. Its team members say they have already experienced the benefits of the I-Corps program, which kicked off mid-January.

“The feedback is invaluable,” says Andrew Tsourkas, a bioengineering professor.

“The network is invaluable, too,” says Jay Dorsey, assistant professor of radiation oncology.

“It’s sort of like a stress test of assumptions and plans, which helps to refine the product as we go along,” explains David Cormode, assistant professor of radiology and bioengineering.

Roy Rosin, chief innovation officer of Penn Medicine, gave a talk about the lean startup method at the last I-Corps session on Feb. 26. 

“How do you learn fast at a low cost?” Rosin asks. “How do you make sure that you’re investing effort in a good direction instead of off a cliff?”

Rosin’s involvement with I-Corps is largely advising—he has a background in building businesses, particularly technology businesses. It’s teachers like Rosin that help keep I-Corps fresh.

“What you have here at Penn is brilliant people with incredible ideas who may have never moved down a path of commercializing before,” says Rosin. “I-Corps really gives them that knowledge and support structure to get out into the world and start to find applications for what they’ve built.”