Notre Dame Engineering Team Receives NSF I-Corps Award for Innovation Training
A team from the University of Notre Dame has been awarded a $50,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) Innovation Corps (I-Corps) award to perform a commercialization assessment of a diagnostic technology that resulted from prior NSF-funded research coming out of the Advanced Diagnostics and Therapeutics Initiative (AD&T). The I-Corps program was established in 2011 to help jump-start a national innovation ecosystem by providing entrepreneurial training to more effectively move technologies out of the lab and into the marketplace.
I-Corps teams are composed of a principal investigator who has a funding track record with the NSF; an entrepreneurial lead, which can be a student or junior researcher having significant experience in the technology as well as entrepreneurial aspirations; and a business mentor who has experience transitioning technologies to the market. The Notre Dame team included Hsueh-Chia Chang, the Bayer Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, as principal investigator; Sunny Shah, senior scientist at AD&T, as entrepreneurial lead; and mentor Kerry Wilson, founder and president of Springboard Engineering Solutions.
The Notre Dame I-Corps project, titled “A Low-Cost, Rapid, Sensitive, PCR-Free Pathogen Diagnostic Platform,” was based upon a microfluidic-based nucleic acid detection system for rapid sensing of DNA and RNA from harmful pathogens.
“The platform technology has the capability for highly sensitive, selective and rapid detection of nucleic acids from bacteria, viruses and other living cells such as human or even plant tissue,” Chang said. “Products enabled by this technology can be low-cost, low-power, portable and will have great implications for clinical diagnostics, public health, global health, food safety, environmental monitoring and biodefense.”
“A typical challenge for platform technologies is in defining the product road map and identifying the first best market to target,” said Kirk Reinbold, managing director of AD&T. “By understanding the dynamics and needs of these markets, academic researchers can make better decisions on defining the next steps toward commercialization. Getting the resources to assist researchers in positioning the technology for a market ‘pull,’ where the market dictates what it needs, instead of a technology ‘push,’ where researchers often guess at where the technology will be best accepted, is notoriously lacking at most universities.”
The I-Corps program kicked off this past January at a meeting with 23 other teams in Washington, D.C. It was administered by four consultants with deep knowledge and success in starting technology ventures.
“This was an eye-opening experience,” said Shah. “We decided to explore food safety as our initial market, specifically the detection of bacteria in food processing plants, thinking this would be a perfect market with a low barrier for entry. I had worked with Kerry Wilson to develop a portable prototype, Rapisense, funded through Notre Dame’s Proof-of-Technology Development Center. We thought we were ready to rock and roll.”
The I-Corps program immerses the teams in a purposefully stressful startup-like environment, infusing them with the importance of customer discovery.
“It doesn’t matter what we, as researchers, think is the value of our technology; it’s what the customer thinks that is important,” Shah said. “We developed what is called a business model canvas where you hypothesize the value proposition (or the cure to the customer’s pain) that your technology addresses. To test the hypothesis, we were expected to conduct 100 interviews with potential customers in the food processing industry, preferably in person, and in six weeks.
“Talk about pressure! We learned quickly that the best way to get feedback was to not discuss the technology, but rather to listen to the customer and hear what their pain points were, what would be possible solutions and how this affects their bottom line.”
“In the business world, you pretty much have a grasp on where the needs are and that helps guide your product development,” Wilson said. “In academia, however, there is no marketing department. I-Corps truly forced the academics to think about the customer. It was customer focus on steroids.”
“After the first 50 or so interviews, from California to Minnesota to Maryland, we found out quickly that a rapid test in a food processing plant was not going to work since the current practice of sending samples to labs was not a problem,” Shah said. “Why rock the boat?”
The team did a pivot and looked at the actual labs themselves.
“With food labs, we gained additional insight in that with food you need to typically use culture enrichment methods to grow bacteria for a day or two, because that’s the only known method to find that one bacteria in a pound of ground beef,” Shah said. “This shot down our value proposition because rapid diagnostics was limited by culture time, and all we could compete on was price.”
The analysis was that food safety was not as attractive a market as the team believed. Its final decision was that this was a “no go” and that it should look at other markets, in a similar customer discovery-focused fashion. Such markets are clinical diagnostics, environmental testing and biodefense.
“The lessons learned from customer discovery have been truly phenomenal,” Shah said. “All researchers desiring to commercialize their discoveries should learn this.”
I-Corps is a public-private partnership that helps propel scientific and engineering discoveries into useful technologies, products and processes. Through I-Corps, academic researchers bring their technology concepts to an intensive, hypothesis-driven curriculum in which venture capitalists and entrepreneurs lead the scientists and engineers through the customer discovery process. The course is based on the Lean LaunchPad method developed and taught at Stanford University by Silicon Valley entrepreneur-turned-teacher Steve Blank. I-Corps participants learn by doing, as they “get out of the building” and speak to scores of potential customers in order to assess the market for their technology.
AD&T creates technologies and tools to combat disease, promote health and safeguard the environment. Its investigators focus on the common purpose of advancing micro- and nano-scale research to improve lives around the world. The application of AD&T innovations range from the home, to doctor’s offices to developing countries.
A fundamental characteristic of AD&T is the commitment to move discoveries out of the lab and into the field or market, where they can have real world impact. The initiative has established a record of success in generating new intellectual property in areas such as diagnostic biochips, cancer-fighting nanoparticles and paper-based diagnostic tools for the developing world.