September 2015

Featured Article

Fostering the "ECE Lab to Market Translation Pipeline": The National Science Foundation's Innovation Corps Program

By Badri Roysam, University of Houston

ECE labs have a long-established track record of academic innovations that have made it to the marketplace. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has developed an unconventional funding initiative that aims to foster, support, and accelerate this process. Known as the NSF Innovation Corps, or I-CORPS (http://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/i-corps/),  the program is by itself quite innovative, and deserves to be publicized among ECE faculty and students.

Every so often, an NSF funded basic research program leads to a breakthrough that deserves to be translated to the marketplace. These breakthroughs need not directly reflect the specific scientific aims of the NSF funded project. For example, Dr. Wei-Chuan Shih and his student Yu-Lung Sung at the University of Houston were experimenting with the application of heat to the transparent biopolymer polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) that is widely used in the lab for soft lithography. Sung and Shih accidentally stumbled upon the fact that droplets of PDMS on a glass surface make superb lenses that can be attached to smartphones (http://www.cnbc.com/2015/05/05/new-lenses-transform-mobile-phones-into-microscopes.html ). These lenses are surprisingly affordable, and offer the potential for a range of applications ranging from K-12 engagement though field cytology in distant outposts. The NSF promptly provided Dr. Shih with a 6-month $50,000 I-CORPS grant that is laying the basis for a startup company.

The I-CORPS funding may seem modest at first glance, but its impact is disproportionate. This program is organized on a national scale with a series of NSF funded I-CORPS Sites (http://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/i-corps/sites.jsp ), and regional I-CORPS Nodes (http://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/i-corps/nodes.jsp ). At the project level, I-CORPS teams (http://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/i-corps/teams.jsp ), composed of academic researchers student entrepreneurs, and business mentors work together to translate a specific advance to the marketplace.

This 3-way partnership at the project level is priceless. The student inventor learns the ropes of the innovation ecosystem under the joint guidance of an ECE faculty member, and a faculty member from the College of Business. The project team is additionally networked closely with the I-CORPS sites and nodes, and this provides world-class knowledge sharing and project tracking benefits. Interestingly, the young ECE faculty member is himself/herself transformed by the I-CORPS experience. Importantly also, I-CORPS grants have the effect of bringing ECE departments and business school departments together in an exciting entrepreneurial environment (http://redlabs.bauer.uh.edu ).

The I-CORPS program is fostering a university based innovation ecosystem that has a curricular footprint. The I-CORPS curriculum is inspired by Stanford University's Lean LaunchPad course (ENGR 245). The I-CORPS curriculum is intended to provide real-world, hands-on, immersive learning about what it takes to successfully translate academic breakthroughs (even incidental ones) into products and processes that benefit society.

While the I-CORPS grant cannot be expected to fund the complete translation, it serves as a powerful catalyst. The expected outcomes of the I-CORPS project include startup formation, licensing, federal Small-business innovation research (SBIR) proposal submission, and the development of a Business Plan. Several universities now have “gap funding” programs (http://www.uh.edu/research/intellectual-property/technology-gap-fund/ ) that can help augment NSF I-CORPS funding. Most major universities also have good incubator programs. As noted extensively by NSF program officers, especially Deborah Jackson, the goal is to overcome the technological “valley of death” for great ideas that run the risk of languishing or dropping out of the translation process for want of resources.

Many important lessons have been learned by the largely successful NSF I-CORPS program. For example, the composition and commitment of the faculty-student team, the ability to adapt to changing circumstances, and empowerment of the student entrepreneur are crucial to success.

From the standpoint of the ECE Chairperson, the lesson is clear – it helps to spread the word about the NSF I-CORPS program among our students and faculty.

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