I-Corp: A Taste Of The Startup Life
“In 2011 over a mediocre Chinese dinner we had a great idea, the kind that won’t let you sleep until you bring it to life,” Kim Cabot explains before a conference room full of ambitious suits, ties, and skirts. Then, her presentation screen cuts to an animated squirrel flailing its arms as it plummets down a bottomless chasm.
Besides drawing a few chuckles from the crowd, the image serves as a light-hearted representation of her most recent venture–brandizi. The vivacious, dark-haired founder and her husband launched the marketing communications platform in January 2013. Brandizi’s free-trial period attracted an overwhelming response. But 30 days later, their flood of customers turned into a trickle when they started charging for the service.
Neither founder is a stranger to entrepreneurship: Cabot boasts a 10-year career in early-stage companies and is currently enrolled in the Evening & Weekend MBA Program at UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business; her husband holds an MBA from Babson and has also worked in multiple startups. But they were stumped. What was going wrong? At the urging of a professor, Cabot filled out an application for I-Corp, a program funded by the National Science Foundation to push science and technology ideas into the marketplace.
Several months later, Cabot was in standing in front of a panel and dozens of other I-Corp participants showcasing a clever snippet of a falling squirrel and a brand new business plan. She was joined by her husband, and their technical lead, Luis Escobedo–their trio was one of 16 teams presenting on Nov. 15, 2013, at the I-Corp Demo Day, the culmination of an intensive seven-week crash course in entrepreneurship.
BIG OPPORTUNITIES FOR MBAS
The Demo Day is one of several going on around the country. I-Corp’s main objective is to create innovation centers for science and technology entrepreneurship on a national scale. So what does this mean for MBAs? Big opportunities.
The NSF handed a three-year $3.75 million grant to UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco, and Stanford University to push between 90 to 100 of teams through the I-Corp program each year. The NSF cherry-picks roughly 50% of these teams, homing in on science and technology students and researchers. For the other half, including Cabot and her I-Corp cohort, anyone in the Bay Area with a business idea and two teammates can apply directly to UC Berkeley. Those selected for the program are expected to commit a grueling 20 to 40 hours per week to defining, testing, refining, and defending their idea.
In return for their time and stress, each group gets an intensive taste of the startup life through a specially tailored version of serial entrepreneur Steve Blank’s Lean Launchpad course. The lesson plan demands that students get outside the classroom, rigorously test their business ideas, and talk to the their target consumers (each team must interview 100 potential customers). The teams work through a business model canvas–essentially a roadmap of blank boxes identifying the essential elements for a successful startup. The boxes range from key partners and customer relationships to the startup’s value proposition and primary activities. At the end of the course, the groups arrive at a go or no-go decision regarding the viability of their business ideas. Those giving themselves a green light are expected to develop a transition plan and a pitch for potential investors.