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Student workshop approaches research with the market in mind

A one-day crash course in tech entrepreneurship teaches students and post-docs how to evaluate the market potential of new technologies.| Medium Read

On June 3rd, engineering graduate students and post-docs from the University of Michigan, Purdue University and Norfolk State University joined together in Ann Arbor for a one-day crash course in tech entrepreneurship. After exploring applications for advanced materials that control light during the workshop, participants of the INNOVATE! program will spend the next two weeks finding out whether there is a market for the new technology.

“Most graduate students don’t have exposure to commercialization,” said Joe Nguyen, a graduate student in biologic and materials sciences in the school of dentistry and lead organizer of the event. “Participants at the workshop learned how to fail fast and move forward.”

Participants listen to the experiences of faculty entrepreneurs and former participants in the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps.

The approach turns the usual practice of inventing something in the lab and then trying to sell it on its head. Instead, the participants identified technologies that could be developed and will test the waters with potential customers before researchers put in the work.

Contact with prospective consumers—industry leaders who might purchase the rights, retailers who might sell the product and potential buyers—is crucial to creating something that is actually useful and wanted, explained Gurhari Singh, an engineering technology mining specialist in the U-M Center for Entrepreneurship (CFE). In the interviews over the coming weeks, the participants will learn how much product concepts often need to change to fit the needs of their users.

“The real question is: what is the customer looking for? In the lab, we make decisions about whether to make something lighter or cheaper. The goal is to uncover what the customer going to care about most,” said Singh. Armed with this information from the beginning, students, post-docs and faculty can build more useful prototypes.

But the importance of the market goes even deeper: Singh says customer interviews help decide whether it’s worth developing these new techniques for controlling light at all. “We have to decipher whether a technology is nice to have or a must-have,” he said.

The participants prepared for the workshop by reading the description of how the advanced materials, called nanocomposites, work. Designed down to the scale of the wavelength of light, nanocomposites control light in much more complex ways than ordinary mirrors and crystals. They can also bend, stretch and—through a technique based on kirigami, the Japanese art of paper cutting—they can transition between flat surfaces and 3D structures. Researchers believe that these materials could revolutionize camera lenses, infrared imaging and laser-based “radar” systems, known as LIDAR.

The workshop started with a technical overview by Nicholas Kotov, the Joseph B. and Florence V. Cejka Professor of Chemical Engineering and a leading light in the field of nanocomposite optics. Then the participants, assigned to teams, discussed potential applications. With these in mind, they listened to Jonathan Fay, managing director of the CFE, explain how to quickly determine what the new technology offers over existing devices and identify potential customers.

“The sheer buzz and excitement from the morning sessions was amazing,” said Samantha Koutsares, a graduate student in materials science, optics and photonics at Norfolk State University. “Kotov’s talk on kirigami structures was inspiring, and the brainstorming sessions excited a lot of passion from people.”

Over lunch, the teams listened to a panel discussion by people who had participated in the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps program, a more extensive introduction to entrepreneurship designed for faculty. The participants spent the afternoon exploring the “ecosystem” required for their product to succeed—from part manufacturing and assembly to retailers.

“Students with all kinds of initial ideas about what entrepreneurship is came to the INNOVATE! Day. I was astounded by the originality of the ideas that they generated,” said Kotov.

Kotov’s team had been focused on inexpensive perception systems that could enhance the detection of bacteria and other microbes in hospitals or help robots and self-driving cars navigate through challenging environments such as cities and buildings. They had overlooked the fashion industry’s potential appetite for clothing that can change color on demand, as one team proposed.

In the two weeks following the workshop, the teams of participants will pitch their ideas to companies, retailers and prospective consumers. Then, they will reconvene over web conferences to give brief presentations on lessons learned. The team deemed most likely to succeed will be awarded a grant to cover travel and fees to their choice of tradeshow or conference within the continental US.

The workshop was jointly sponsored by the U-M Biointerfaces Research Group and the CFE. The team of organizers included Molly Kozminsky, a doctoral student in chemical engineering; Shani Ross, a research fellow in biomedical engineering; Lukasz Ochyl, a graduate student in pharmaceutical sciences; and Zachariah Sperry, a graduate student in biomedical engineering.

Kotov is also a professor of biomedical engineering, materials science and engineering, and macromolecular science and engineering.

Encouraging economic development and entrepreneurship in Michigan is a top priority for the U-M College of Engineering’s transformational campaign currently underway. Find out more about supporting entrepreneurial activities and partnerships in the Victors for Michigan campaign.

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