New grants offer students and faculty chance to turn ideas into businesses

Student and faculty entrepreneurs will have a new avenue to commercialize their science and technology innovations with new funding from a University program.

National Science Foundation Innovation Corps, a program that supports commercial opportunities from science and technology research, will begin funding the first group of GW student and faculty ideas next month. The funding will include 33 grants for $3,000 and a two-week program to teach recipients how to market their ideas to clients.

I-Corps was launched by the NSF in 2011 and was incorporated into the White House’s Strategy for American Innovation by 2015, according to the University’s website. The regional D.C. node, one of eight nationally, includes GW, Virginia Tech, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland at College Park.

The I-Corps project was first funded in 2013 for all universities in the D.C. node and last fall the D.C. area program was awarded $3.45 million over five years from the NSF.

Dan Kunitz, the director of the I-Corps program at GW, said the grant will give students and faculty a more direct way to create businesses around their inventions. Kunitz said the purpose is to teach anyone who creates an innovative product, like a 3D printer, how they can put it on the market.

“We can use this opportunity to actually fund student teams to participate in our program and pursue their projects,” he said.

Students can spend grant money on travel expenses for meeting potential clients and any costs related to building the network and outreach for their product, according to the University website.

All faculty, students and staff are eligible for a $3,000 grant, but Kunitz said the program is primarily interested in startups with a technology aspect. A two-week instructional program starting Friday will teach the new grant winners the basic rules of entrepreneurship.

“We help them understand what is involved in building a business model and we do customer discovery,” he said. “We are eager to reach as many people as want to work with us, and so we have intentionally made the application process very easy.”

The applications are accepted on a rolling basis and involve interviews and an electronic form, but he said the program officially starts Nov. 3.

“We can use this opportunity to actually fund student teams to participate in our program and pursue their projects,” he said.

Participating students explore potential clients through the program, and the new grant will give those outreach efforts a financial boost. As of October 2016, 33 students, faculty and postdoctoral fellows participated in the previous program without the $3,000 grants.

Six teams from GW went on to the national I-Corps that awarded a $50,000 grant, according to a University release.

The University has participated in the I-Corps program as a member of the regional D.C. node, allowing student innovators access to a six- or seven-week educational program with I-Corps staff to help them develop their ideas and test market viability for their technology.

In 2015, the D.C. node held a shorter, two-week educational program to accommodate busy students who are involved with startups. Sixteen faculty members and 18 students participated in the program that year to figure out how to market their research.

Ben Holmes, a post doctoral student who went through the I-Corps program twice, said having funds at the beginning of the I-Corps experience would have made finding clients more convenient for him.

“It can just ease the burden of committing your own time and energy,” Holmes said.

He said giving I-Corps grants would help raise awareness about entrepreneurship at the University and help get startups off the ground. Once a researcher’s idea is validated as a product that will sell, he said creating a business around it is the next important step.

Connor Roberts, an alumnus who graduated last year and made it to the national level of the I-Corps program, said the program helped change the way he saw his ideas. He got to speak to the people whose problems he was trying to solve, he said.

“You know for scientists and engineers we sit in a lab and dream up all these things that we think are going to change the world and then you let it go and put it out in the real world and realize nobody wants it,” he said.

His project ultimately received $50,000 from the NSF last spring to talk and market to the hospital staff whose lives would be improved by the medical technology alert system that he said would constantly check the performance of technology instead of scheduled checks.

Ekundayo Shittu, a professor of mechanical engineering and the principal investigator of the project, said his group was given a couple thousand dollars to start their project.

He said his team went to a conference, where they spoke with many medical device technicians who would be potential users of their product.

“That’s exactly what the $3,000 will help with future participants of the program,” he said.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.