National Science Foundation I-Corps Site

About Our Site & Microgrant Program

The NSF awarded Invent Penn State I-Corps Site status and $500,000 in September 2017 to support entrepreneurship training and microgrants for university-related startups. Eligible teams receive up to $3,000 for customer discovery to advance their ideas.
Apply Now

Participants may qualify for I-Corps national team and $50,000 in additional funding

About the Funding

I-Corps funding is designed to assist teams in performing customer discovery. This generally includes interacting 1-on-1, in person, with potential customers to better understand their needs and challenges, and to validate assumptions about your target market. Allowed expenses include:

  • Travel expenses, trade shows and conference registrations or other meetings designed to directly interact with potential clients or experts in your market.
  • Modest amounts of equipment or materials (no more than 50% of your total expenses) needed to fabricate physical prototypes to be tested with real customers. Prototypes are defined as first, or preliminary-stage models, built to test a concept or process after your first 30 customer interviews are complete.
  • Modest digital prototyping infrastructure (no more than 50% of your total expenses) such as AWS subscriptions needed to test prototypes with real customers—can only be done after your first 30 customer interviews are complete.


How to Do Effective Customer Interviews

Benefits of I-Corps

The Invent Penn State I-Corps Site provides microgrants, commercialization training and mentorship for up to 30 startup teams per year. These “bootcamp” style trainings help inventors begin customer discovery, learn about the commercialization process, network with experienced entrepreneurs and determine if markets exist for their innovation.

  • Receive a micogrant of up to $3,000, which can be used to attend industry trade shows, visit potential customers, develop prototypes and cover customer discovery expenses.
  • Have a dedicated mentor who meets with teams to provide business expertise, advise on pitch development and funding strategies, and help grow a network of contacts.
  • Have priority opportunities to showcase their new venture at the Invent Penn State Venture & IP Conference on April 15 & 16, 2021.
  • Become eligible to apply for an I-Corps National Teams $50,000 grant award. (This is an alternate National Teams eligibility path for PI’s who have not previously received NSF funding.)
  • Qualify for an increasing number of NSF grant awards that require NSF I-Corps training as a criteria for eligibility.


Why I-Corps

NSF I-Corps National Innovation Network & Resources


  • Penn State faculty, graduate students, undergraduate students, staff and recent alumni are eligible to apply.
  • Eligible projects must be in a science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) discipline.
  • Teams should have three people:
    • An academic lead who will serve as Principal Investigator (PI)—typically a PSU faculty or staff member
    • An entrepreneurial lead—a student, faculty/staff, recent alumni or community member
    • A business mentor—to provide an experienced perspective to the team. Mentors will be assigned if needed.
  • Teams must attend workshops and cohort meetings. Time commitment varies based on the bootcamp program you choose to attend (see below).
  • Teams must perform a minimum of 30 customer interviews by the end of the program.

About the Fall 2020 Virtual Short Course

Academic researchers interested in exploring the commercial potential of their technological innovation are invited to apply for a free NSF I-Corps Virtual Short Course to be held October 23 – November 14.

The 4-week Virtual Short Course is made up of weekly workshops and customer discovery activity, culminating with a team presentation and showcase of Penn State’s entrepreneurship programs for actionable next steps.

Faculty, staff, postdoctoral, graduate and undergraduate student researchers pursuing STEM-related research from any Penn State campus may apply with a team of one to three people.

Fall 2020 Virtual Short Course Schedule

  • Session 1 — Workshop: Oct. 23, 4–7 p.m.
  • Session 2 — Workshop: Oct. 24, 9 a.m.–noon
  • Session 3 — Customer discovery check-in: Oct. 29, 1 hour
  • Session 4 — Customer discovery check-in: Nov. 5, 1 hour
  • Session 5 — Workshop: Nov. 13, 4–7 pm
  • Session 6 — Presentation: Nov. 14, 9 a.m.–noon

The course kicks off with two workshops on Friday, Oct. 23, and Saturday, Oct. 24, with teams learning the Business Model Canvas, a hypothesis-testing methodology, and how to conduct effective customer discovery interviews to learn if there’s a market fit for their idea. The following three weeks, teams utilize resources like LinkedIn Premium (cost covered by NSF I-Corps grant) to talk to potential customers about their needs, with the goal of completing 30 customer discovery interviews. Sessions 3 and 4 happen in the middle of the customer discovery weeks, with teams attending one-hour video check-ins to share progress updates and receive coaching from the course instructors. The short course ends with Sessions 5 and 6, where teams present their findings, receive additional coaching, and learn about next steps with NSF I-Corps and other Penn State entrepreneurship programs.

The Process

1. Apply to a Bootcamp

Faculty, staff, graduate and undergraduate students, recent alumni and community members interested in exploring the commercial viability of their idea or innovation can apply to one of a number of established bootcamps based on the lean startup and customer discovery methods endorsed by NSF I-Corps.

Altoona, Altoona LaunchBox. Altoona LaunchBox engages future business owners and local entrepreneurs to explore their start-up business ideas and get feedback on challenges they face. Also offers an 8 week training program for selected startups.


Reading, Penn State Berks Idea Test Lab. Located in the Flemming Creativity, Entrepreneurship and Economic Development (CEED) Center, is a 6-week accelerator program to advance early stage STEM- related innovations.


State College, Ben Franklin TechCelerator. Located in Innovation Park, specializes in commercialization support for university research-derived technologies in complex, often regulated, markets.


State College, Happy Valley LaunchBox powered by PNC Bank. Located on Allen Street in downtown State College, Happy Valley LaunchBox specializes in support for early-stage, scalable startups focused on emerging markets, digital innovations or novel business models.


New Kensington, Penn State New Kensington Idea TestLab. Located in the Corridor of Innovation in downtown New Kensington, the 4-session Idea TestLab helps you get a better handle on what problem your customer really has, where they hang out, and what value you can provide that others can’t.


Harrisburg, Penn State Harrisburg Idea TestLab. Located in the Eastgate Center, the 6-session Idea TestLab helps you get a better handle on what problem your customer really has, where they hang out, and what value you can provide that others can’t.


2. Complete a Bootcamp

Once your team has successfully completed an approved bootcamp, you can apply for a microgrant. (See eligibility above.)

3. Apply for a Microgrant


Penn State I-Corps Teams

The top entrepreneurial Penn State teams are selected each year to participate in the NSF I-Corps program. Each team receives up to $3,000 for use to attend industry trade shows, visit potential customers, develop prototypes and cover customer discovery expenses. Selected teams come from a variety of different industries and focus on a variety of different problems.

Additional Funding Opportunities from I-Corps - The National Teams Program

I-Corps™ is a national science foundation initiative to increase the economic impact of research it has funded.

The I-Corps™ program was created by the NSF in 2011 to help move academic research it has funded to market. Through a dynamic collaboration with VentureWell, the NSF offers select participants from US academic laboratories the opportunity to participate in a special, accelerated version of Stanford University’s Lean LaunchPad course. This revolutionary National Program engages participants in moving products out of the lab and into the market by talking to potential customers, partners and competitors and encountering the challenges and uncertainty of creating successful innovations.

The I-Corps™ environment is fast-paced and rigorous. Teams receive a $50,000 grant to expand their customer discovery. They are pushed, challenged, and questioned in the hope that they will learn quickly whether or not their ideas are worth pursuing. Teams are expected to complete at least ten customer interviews a week, which means that over the ten-week course teams have contact with 100 potential customers.

The teams—composed of academic researchers, student entrepreneurs and business mentors—participate in the curriculum via online instruction and on-site activities through one of several I-Corps™ Nodes. I-Corps™ Sites catalyze additional groups to explore potential I-Corps™ Team projects and other entrepreneurial opportunities that build on academic research.

About I-Corps National Teams Program


The team's mentor, Tim Hurley, left; mechanical engineering doctoral students Nan Sun, Birgitt Boschitsch and Jing Wang; and Tak-Sing Wong, assistant professor of mechanical engineering.