Students at Binghamton University are creating their own companies with the help of the Koffman Southern Tier Incubator in the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Innovation Corps (I-Corps).
I-Corps is a three-week experience run by the Incubator, a business-oriented incubator that offers resources and opportunities to Broome Community College (BCC) and BU students. As part of the I-Corps program, the NSF provides participants with a grant of up to $3,000 to execute their projects. The program funds a wide breadth of projects, ranging from student-oriented social networks to cancer testing technology. This year, 25 BU students are participating in the program.
The I-Corps program is designed to teach young entrepreneurs how to target their ideal customers through training in a practice called customer discovery, a process of interviews with potential clients and extensive research into the reach of a project. Over 100 students have been trained since 2017 with five startups launched in 2019 in addition to others over the years.
Chinomso Choice Eyegheleme, a first-year graduate student in electrical engineering, found that practicing customer discovery helped show him how to identify the right audience for his application, ConnectExpat. Eyegheleme described his application, which aims to connect users for both personal and professional purposes based on both country of origin and physical location, as the middle ground between Instagram and LinkedIn.
“When I began this project, I believed that my first customers would be prospective international students,” Eyegheleme said. “But, after doing customer discovery, I realized that they are going to be prospective international graduate students.”
The I-Corps program also hosts a series of informational presentations, weekly meetings with mentors and 20 customer discovery interviews. The program runs multiple times a semester. Currently, two three-week sessions have been organized.
The first session ran from Sep. 16 until Oct. 7. The next session is from Nov. 2 to Nov. 23. To participate in I-Corps, students must fill out an online application where they present their idea and explain the role of their company or project. This application and more information about the program can be found on the Koffman Southern Tier Incubator’s website under the I-Corps tab.
Cory Kimmell, integrated marketing and communications specialist for the Koffman Southern Tier Incubator, explained that the program vets all applicants, and the application is open to those who meet the program guidelines of formulating a well-researched, science-based idea.
Eyegheleme participated in the I-Corps program because it allowed him to focus on his entrepreneurial aspirations.
“Everyone thinks of getting a job,” Eyegheleme said. “No one thinks of starting their dream company.”
The I-Corps program aims to keep participants on track to continue establishing their projects as a viable entrepreneurial venture after the program ends. Jeremy Boss, a sophomore majoring in business administration, is working on OverTalk, a communications platform that connects department directors of large corporations and employees. Boss explained that his team plans on continuing work on their project after they complete the program.
“The point of the program is to develop exactly who our customer is,” Boss said. “Once we complete the program, we’re going to continue reaching out to companies until we can eventually find a select group of companies to start beta tests with.”
While participants like Eyegheleme and Boss said they found the I-Corps program to be helpful, Galo Paez Fajardo, a doctoral student studying physics, expressed concerns about the workload. Paez Fajardo was working on a project called “Peer-Peer Valet” and found the first three days of the program overwhelming.
“The structure of the program forces us to read too much information in a short period of time,” Paez Fajardo said. “Loaded with other tasks, I could not go through the whole material.”
Kimmell acknowledged that while it may be overwhelming, the I-Corps program prepares students for life as an entrepreneur.
“[The workload] has to do with the nature of what the program puts you through,” Kimmell said. “It’s a unique area that many aren’t accustomed to, but that’s really what business is all about.”