In being awarded a new federal distinction as an Innovation Corps Site by the National Science Foundation (NSF), The University of Akron joins only two other universities in the nation to receive several hundred thousand dollars in funding to cultivate the next generation of successful student entrepreneurs.
A project under way in the lab of Ajay Mahajan, associate dean for research in the College of Engineering and professor of mechanical engineering, is an example of the research that can be nurtured and commercialized through the NSF I-Corps Sites Program. Here, biomedical engineering students Laura von Deak and Ellen Wasserbauer test a new version of a biopsy needle on an apple.
The I-Corps Sites program builds on other NSF programs aimed at developing viable commercial products from federally funded research. I-Corps teaches scientists how to quickly turn innovative research into a commercially viable product or service that will be successful in the marketplace. The funding — $300,000 over three years — will allow University of Akron students to work with faculty and a business mentor from outside the University to test and demonstrate the marketability of their innovation before seeking additional investment for growth.
UA joins the University of Illinois College of Engineering and the University of California-San Diego's von Liebig Entrepreneurism Center in NSF's I-Corps Sites Program.
UA will train at least 90 teams of students, faculty and community-based business executives in a new model of critical analysis to determine whether commercialization of their innovative idea, product, or service is worth pursuing. The Sites program is a first step — those innovations proving to be commercially viable will then move to the next phase: the team will apply for targeted federal and state grants, find business sponsors, build a business team and ultimately form a new company. By ensuring the likelihood of commercial success for innovative ideas, this program has the potential to positively impact the regional economy and serve as a national model for innovation and entrepreneurship.
Esra Cipa, left, and Zahra Najafi, both graduate students in biomedical engineering, demonstrate their hydroponics research in the lab of Ajay Mahajan. Cipa is a member of the LaunchTown Entrepreneurship Award-winning team “Telkesis,” a developer of the next generation of spinal implants, which was awarded $10,000 as “best idea” in the 2012 LaunchTown Entrepreneurship Awards. Telkesis is the type of student-inspired startup business being nurtured by the NSF I-Corps Sites Program.
"What distinguishes an I-Corps startup from a typical university startup is the way it leads researchers toward a new way of thinking rather than fixating on the technology they've developed," says Barry Rosenbaum, senior fellow at The University of Akron Research Foundation (UARF), who has served as a mentor to several UA startup businesses after a long career in industry. "New principles they are taught are about talking with potential customers, identifying channels to market, developing revenue strategies and who to partner with."
UA will integrate the I-Corps Sites program into a broader Innovation Practice Center, one of two new centers of innovation and entrepreneurship UA will roll out this year. Two UA teams have already participated in the NSF I-Corps Teams program, in which a faculty member, student and business executive completed an intensive, six-week business development course. The two teams then formed two companies that have received further funding: Akron Ascent Innovations, a producer of dry, reusable adhesives, and ThermElectricity, developer of a thermal energy harvesting device that captures energy from virtually any heat source.
George Newkome, vice president for research at UA and president of UARF, says the University's leadership in advanced materials research and history of successful technology commercialization prompted the NSF support.
"We are a perfect fit for the I-Corps program," Newkome says. "By building on our established leadership position and using it for innovative partnerships with business, industry and education, UA is advancing economic development and spurring job creation in Ohio and the nation."
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