The National Science Foundation, Arlington, Va. Credit: NSF.

Our nation’s capitol was an interesting place to be last week, but not because of the impossible-to-escape budget politics that dominated the newscasts. Last week I was in DC attending the NSF-ACerS workshop for principal investigators, and at every level of the NSF the message is “innovation.”

On Thursday, NSF director Subra Suresh announced a major new program-the NSF Innovation Corps, or I-Corps. Using the tagline “Science to Start-ups,” the purpose of the program (supported with new FY11 funds) is to leverage science and engineering discoveries into economically useful products and processes. In a press release Suresh says, “The United States has a long history of investing in-and deploying-technological advances derived from a foundation of basic research.”

In the press conference (video), John Holdren, assistant to the President for science and technology and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, outlined the three goals of the program: “to spur translational research, to encourage university-industry collaboration and to provide students with innovation and entrepreneurship training.”

Also in his press conference comments, Suresh predicted that the I-Corps will establish an “innovation ecosystem” that will “transition scientific output funded by NSF into technological innovation.”

The I-Corps also involves a public–private collaboration with the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and the Deshpande Foundation. Each I-Corps team will have a principal investigator, a mentor with exptertise at transitioning lab research into business, a post-doc or graduate student. The mentors are to be recruited from the ranks “technology developers, business leaders, venture capitalists and others from private industry.

Up to 100 projects per year will be funded at $50,000 per project for a six-month effort and a maximum of $5k can be allocated to indirect costs. Interested PIs are required to receive written approval to submit a proposal from an NSF program director. The submission window for FY11 proposals is Aug. 17-Sept. 9, 2011.

Because the program is new and has some unusual requirements and limitations, the NSF is conducting informational webinars on the first Tuesday of every month at 2:00 pm (Eastern time) beginning tomorrow, Aug. 2, 2011.

To be eligible for I-Corps funding, PIs must have current NSF funding or have had NSF funding within the last five years. New funding has been established for I-Corps, and the first awards will be made before FY11 closes on Sept. 30. NSF expects to award $1-2 million in FY11 and to grow I-Corps into a $10 million program. Awards will be made quarterly in FY12 and beyond.

Full details are provided in the program solicitation and in the I-Corps factsheet.