Bloomberg recently profiled an entrepreneurial luminary, Steve Blank, who teamed up with the National Science Foundation to teach classes for the newly formed NSF Innovation Corps. The NSF I-Corps, as it's called, seeks to commercialize new products out of U.S. academic research labs by funding teams that include:

  • An entrepreneurial lead
  • A principal investigator (research scientist)
  • An industry expert

As we study ways for businesses to be more innovative, we look for examples like Blank and the NSF. We find that it's extremely helpful to look outside your industry for examples of teams who do things differently and create success. These principles and processes can often be applied to any business situation, and the outside perspective can result in something that is truly enlightening and innovative.

Blank defines the goal for his students as "figuring out who you're solving a problem for and why do they care," with his signature definition of work: get out of the lab, find your customer and talk to them.

The NSF funded 100 teams this year, through their program hosted at Stanford University, and plans to grow this program by expanding to the University of Michigan and Georgia Tech in the upcoming year. With 19 teams choosing to continue developing their business this year, the NSF sees a strong opportunity to re-ignite a commercial focus in academia and grow new businesses within the hard sciences research community.

How can your business learn from Blank and the NSF?

Successful business teams, whether in a start-up or a mature business, tend to follow the NSF's I-Corps team structure. This structure aligns well with the three actions we believe every business can take to re-ignite an innovation mindset:

  • Interact with your customers
  • Empower your team to take action
  • Execute your ideas quickly, revise them often

When you're building or joining a team, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who knows the industry and the market?
  • Who will know the customer and find their needs?
  • Who can build the right product for the customer need?
  • Who can keep the team focused on building a business, not just a product?

How do you think about building a team for successful new product development? What key skills or team personalities are critical for your success? What was your most salient lesson learned from a failed team? Let us know in the comments below or by emailing us at

Avondale Associate Chris Lyman contributed to this article.