UA mechanical engineering team receives $50,000 to increase entrepreneurial acumen


Following a crash course in UA’s I-Corps Sites program, UA mechanical engineering Ph.D. student Morteza Vatani, assistant professor Jae-Won Choi, and business mentor Tom Swiger have been accepted onto the next level of I-Corps program training.

At this level, the team will be required to interview 100 customers and will receive $50,000 for travel to visit customers and to prototype and test their sensor device.

Focus on the customer

I-Corps teams are initially required to interview between 10 and 15 customers concerning their needs, habits, and what they would be willing to spend to solve a particular problem. This is an opportunity for teams to revise their hypotheses and find a more realistic way of thinking about their invention.

“When most teams are looking at their invention, they come up with a hundred crazy ideas of how their technology can be used. But most aren’t measurable and they rarely reflect what a customer really wants or needs,” said Elyse Ball, project manager for the University of Akron Research Foundation.

When Vatani first joined the I-Corps Sites program, he and his team believed their sensor would be a replacement for sensors in a whole host of robotics and heavy manufacturing applications. The problem, Vatani quickly learned, was that most manufacturing sensors are cheap and don’t require anywhere near the sophistication of his team’s elegant new tactile sensor. So Vatani and Choi went on a search for commercial partners that could really make the most of their sensors’ unique qualities, including stretchability, sensitivity, and customizable size and shape.

What really matters

The key is for teams to understand which unique features of their technology matter most to customers. Vatani and Choi interviewed aerospace and tire manufacturers, makers of automated assembly lines, and prosthetic hand manufacturers. They also attended FABTECH, an exhibition for the nation’s largest metal and manufacturing companies.

“When we started the customer interviews, it was brand new for us and very different,” Choi said. “Usually, engineering professors think, ‘we have technology, we know what we’re doing.’ We don’t think about customer interviews or anything like that, but the customer interviews directed us to new things, including new ideas for basic research.”

Vatani and Choi’s quest is common. “We always think or see the market in optimism,” said Vatani, explaining how I-Corps helped his team narrow their market from dozens of untested ideas to a few concrete applications where their sensor would be most useful.

Mentorship and market size

In addition to conducting customer interviews, I-Corps teams work with a mentor that has significant business experience and can make connections with customers to guide them through the process.

Teams are also tasked with finding competitive products and determining the size of their potential markets to see if the market is big enough for their product to be a worthy venture.

Over the course of seven weeks and 15 customer interviews, Choi and Vatani learned that most manufacturers are happy with the sensors they have. However, the prosthetic companies expressed interest in stretchable sensors that could be customized to specific sizes and shapes to coat prosthetic hands, making them better mimic real hands. Choi and Vatani also found that electronics manufacturers needed “sensitive” sensors that could tell how hard to grip delicate electronic chips.

“The first couples of weeks [of I-Corps], it was kind of strange. We did elevator pitches. I’ve given many technical presentations and conference presentations, but nothing like this,” said Choi.

His team is now focused on interviewing prosthetists and patients to clarify how the sensor can best suit their needs. They recently won an Ohio Third Frontier Technology Validation & Startup Fund grant to create prototypes tailored specifically to prosthetic applications. Choi is also working with Ken Burns, Founder and President of TinyCircuits, to learn how to introduce new sensor products to the market.