Colorado State University joins an elite group of Western research universities in a National Science Foundation-funded program that helps faculty and students commercialize their technologies and other intellectual property.
This fall, NSF announced that CSU had been added to its western region “I-Corps Hub,” a hub that includes the University of Southern California and other top research universities. The appointment includes an initial award of $350,000 over two years to support the university’s efforts to commercialize technologies developed by its graduate students and faculty.
CSU has used some of the funds to create a one-stop shop for innovation and entrepreneurship: a new website that is a collaboration between the Institute for Entrepreneurship, the Office of the Vice President for Research, and CSU STRATA, the new company name, for the combined services of the CSU Research Foundation and CSU Ventures.
“Everyone Lives in One Place”
“It has been so difficult to navigate our entrepreneurial ecosystem,” said Scott Shrake, associate vice president of strategy and executive director of the Institute for Entrepreneurship at the College of Business. “With us, VPR and CSU-STRATA, everything now lives in one place. This is a great win that has been recognized and funded as part of the hub for several years.”
He said the move is exciting on several fronts.
“The highlights are strengthening the innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem, helping faculty and graduate students commercialize their incredible intellectual property, and joining these other peer institutions that are doing great work in this space,” said Shrake.
Shrake is leading CSU’s I Corps effort along with Co-Principal Investigators Amber Krummel, an associate professor of chemistry, and Jeff Muhs, who also leads the Rockies/Plains Energy Accelerator for Commercializing Hardtech (REACH) within the CSU Energy Institute .
Alternative market finding method
Muhs explained that the I-Corps Hub is an NSF training program that teaches faculty and graduate students a different approach to identifying markets for their intellectual property. Researchers are trained to exercise restraint when discussing their proposed solution with potential customers. Instead of going ahead with their idea, they are taught to only ask questions about the challenges their prospects face.
“This I-Corps course helps technologists set aside their preconceived ideas about where their technology should fit in the marketplace,” Muhs said. “It basically teaches you to go out and ask perceived customers about their problems and how this technology could solve those problems.
“Rather than starting to talk about their technology, they start asking questions about the processes these people go through to acquire new technology and pain points where new technology might be useful,” explained Muhs . “The program teaches you to back off from discussions about technology, to focus on the needs and wants of the people you’re calling, and to use the information you get as a better benchmark for where your technology might ultimately fit.”
Personal lesson learned
He mentioned his own challenge early in his career when he was working on technology to bring sunlight into buildings using fiber optics. Muhs and his fellow researchers assumed the application would apply to large retail stores like Walmart, but they later learned that their key markets were actually jewelry and furniture stores, a finding the I-Corps trial would have revealed earlier.
“Because I hadn’t done this and knew I should have done it, I had a lot of faith in the program,” he said. “I-Corps is a great way for faculty and graduate students to dip their toes in the waters of commercialization and understand if they have a good idea that could be commercialized. It adds to their understanding of the business world and shows where their technology could fit.”
He added, “And it increases their likelihood of receiving future funding for the technology because of the partnerships they form through these customer discovery calls.” Organizations like NSF now look at the resumes of PIs on certain types of research projects to see if they have undergone I-Corps training. If this is the case, PIs are more likely to receive funding.”
In good company
Muhs explained that joining the NSF hub means CSU will get in touch with some of the country’s research powerhouses.
“The beauty of this particular hub that we’re joining is that USC and the other partners have a really strong track record of developing startup companies, and so CSU will be learning from some of the best universities how to leverage technology through startups commercialized,” he said.
Chemistry professor Garret Miyake has ties to two startup companies that have benefited from the I-Corps program, and he did the training himself.
New Iridium, a company Miyake co-founded with his former postdoc and CEO Chern-Hooi Lim, specializes in decarbonizing chemical manufacturing by using light energy instead of heat. It is inspired by photosynthesis and uses advanced “photocatalysis” technology. It reduces the steps required in traditional chemical manufacturing, creates fewer by-products, and uses carbon dioxide as a feedstock, removing this greenhouse gas from the environment, Miyake explained. Lim was named News from chemistry and technology‘ Talented Twelve last year for ‘world-changing work’.