Second I-Corps cohort begins work

By Jacqui Ogrodnik

The University’s first National Science Foundation Innovation Corps Sites cohort, a program that commercializes research done in labs on campus, was completed in late October. The second cohort began on Oct. 24, and it added two research teams to the original six that were accepted into the program.

NSF I-Corps Sites is a three-year program funded by the NSF with the goal of helping “commercialize research that’s been done in our labs and (getting) 30 teams through the program each year,” said Jed Taylor, assistant director of the Technology Entrepreneur Center. 

The program is a partnership between the Technology Entrepreneur Center and EnterpriseWorks, along with the Office of Technology Management and Illinois Ventures.

Faculty members, graduate students and researchers who are looking to start up their own companies apply to the program to help explore and commercialize their research, Taylor said.

“We teach them a curriculum, help them go out and talk to potential customers and make sure that they’re building stuff that people care about,” he said.

The program is a great introduction to the components of a business model because validating ideas is not something engineers tend to do much, said Ryan Shelton, entrepreneurial lead for PhotoniCare, Inc., which is in the first cohort and postdoctoral research associate in the College of Engineering.

PhotoniCare aims at improving screening and diagnoses techniques for physicians. They have developed an enhanced handheld device used by primary care physicians that enables them to see both the surface of tissue and through the surface to view the tissue layers beneath.

“Our goal was to validate that we were solving a problem that existed,” Shelton said. “That’s one of the reasons some businesses don’t succeed. They’re trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.”

Shelton and his team worked to gain a better understanding of their business model by interviewing anybody who would be a user or decision maker of their product. Through this process he found potential collaborations and partnerships with physicians.

“That was a large component of the program,” he said. “Customer interviews were where the value really came into play.”

Among the engineering teams in the first cohort was one team from the School of Music.

Heinrich Taube, associate professor in the School of Music, was the entrepreneurial lead for the Harmonia project in the first cohort. Harmonia is a music theory application that is aimed to make music theory instruction better and to allow the students to actually practice it.

“Their homework is like a test,” Taube said. “They get one shot at it and then move on. It’s hard to learn music like that.”

Taube said the program was eye-opening, as it identified potentially commercial research projects while allowing the team members to take the next step by discovering the viability of the research as a commercial enterprise.

“The goal is to find out if this thing is commercially viable. This isn’t a yes or no answer — it can be a maybe,” he said. “Through the interviewing process, you can find out what you thought was your market or customer base wasn’t at all or it was another set of features that you could add that would increase people’s excitement of what you were doing.”

The members of the first cohort are now in the position to enroll in the NSF I-Corps national program or to apply for a Small Business Innovation Research grant from the government.

“(They validate their) market size, their customer segment and their value proposition … they’re in position to apply for the national program or an SPIR grant,” Taylor said.

Four of the six teams, including Shelton’s and Taube’s, are planning to apply for the national program.

The second cohort will end Dec. 5, while the third cohort, which three teams have already been signed up for, will begin Jan. 23. The fourth cohort will take place sometime in March.

Jacqui can be reached at [email protected]