NSF I-Corps Expanding Mindsets
May 28, 2020
The way Emily Jackson-Holmes sees it, her recent National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (NSF I-Corps) experience was the classic win-win situation.
She became interested in the commercialization potential of her research while working toward her Ph.D. in the lab of Hang Lu, professor in both the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University, and a researcher in the Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience at Tech.
“I saw myself going into industry, but a few years ago I got interested in commercializing this technology in our lab, so it’s been all about entrepreneurship lately,” Jackson-Holmes, now a postdoctoral fellow in the Lu lab, said earlier this spring as her I-Corps Teams Program cohort was nearing the last few weeks of its seven-week course.
“Through my time in I-Corps, I’ve gotten increasingly excited about the possibility of starting a small company,” she added. “The worst case scenario is, even if we don’t start a company, in my mind, I will have learned a lot of invaluable lessons that will serve me well as I go into industry.”
For researchers like Jackson-Holmes, the I-Corps program has become a boot camp in the campaign to commercialize useful medical technology and bring it to the people who need it most – clinicians and patients.
Created by the NSF in 2011, the program exists to reduce the time and risk associated with translating promising ideas and technology from labs to the marketplace, using real-world experiential learning to around the notions of customer and industry discovery, combined with an immersive investigation of industrial processes. The goal is to quickly assess the translational potential of new technology.
The bonus of this kind of fast-track experience, particularly in the I-Corps Teams program (like the one Jackson-Holmes completed over the winter and spring earlier this year), is that it gives participants a dose of pragmatic clarity as they consider their options.
“That’s the beauty of this program,” said Cynthia Sundell, principal with VentureLab and director of life science industry collaborations at Georgia Tech. “Anyone who is contemplating being an entrepreneur or doing a start-up is, after six or seven weeks, ready to make a go or no-go decision about whether or not they want to put in the significant effort and risk it will take.”
Either way you look at it – go or no go – the I-Corps real-world curriculum is designed to change or expand the mindsets of would-be research entrepreneurs.
Keith McGreggor, executive director of VentureLab, is also lead instructor and founding executive director of I-Corps South, headquartered at Georgia Tech. He estimates that he’s taught between 20 to 25 percent of the 1,800 teams from across the country (including more than 70 from Georgia Tech) that have taken part in regional-based courses. He noted, “When someone goes through the I-Corps process, they come back thinking critically in a different way about their own research intent.”
After NSF launched I-Corps in 2011, Georgia Tech became one of the program’s original nodes, a collaborative of universities responsible for delivering a standardized curriculum across the region, and providing the tools, support, and resources needed by other institutions seeking to create and maintain their own entrepreneurship programs. The I-Corps South node based at Georgia Tech includes the University Alabama-Tuscaloosa, University of Alabama-Birmingham, and University of Tennessee. Together they serve sites throughout the 10-state Southern region.
“We’ve got a long, robust history, and we’re in the process of a $15 million proposal that would solidify our hub for the next five years,” said McGreggor, also an instructor with Georgia Tech’s Create-X program, which teaches entrepreneurial skills to students (mostly undergraduates) through experiential learning.
“We’re in engaged in a large effort at Georgia Tech,” McGreggor said. “Everything we do in I-Corps permeates the entrepreneurial activity on campus.”
Meeting the Need
Jenni Li, a former Petit Undergraduate Scholar who has been working in the Hang Lu lab for three years, was still a Georgia Tech underclassman when she founded her first company as part of the Create-X program. “So when Emily asked me to join her I-Corps team, she thought my background would be perfect for the job,” said Li, who became the entrepreneur co-lead with Jackson-Holmes on a project they called CytoArray.
There are three primary members, or positions, on an I-Corps team (whether participating in the national I-Corps Teams program, or a regional program like those administered through I-Corps South at Georgia Tech): the entrepreneurial lead, often a postdoctoral scholar or graduate student or, in Li’s case, an undergrad; a technical lead, which is usually a faculty member, senior research scientist, or postdoc with expertise in the core technology being considered for its commercial potential (for CytoArray, that’s Matt Crane, a research scientist and former grad student in the Lu lab); and a mentor, an experienced entrepreneur with experience transitioning technology from university labs to the marketplace, someone who can help the team navigate the business ecosystem.
For this last role for, the team from Lu’s lab was lucky to land Harold Solomon. Like Sundell, he’s a principal at Venture Lab – their offices are next door on the ground floor of the Petit Institute. This was his fourth I-Corps cohort, “but my first anywhere near drug development, which is kind of exciting,” said Solomon, who has become an avid promoter of the bioscience commercial potential coming from Petit Institute researchers and other labs across campus.
During last year’s I-Corps Teams winter cohort, the Petit Institute was represented by three teams of research-entrepreneurs in the national program:
• Huxley Medical. Woon Hong Yeo, assistant professor in the Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering and a Petit Institute researcher, was the technical lead; former Georgia Tech grad students Brett Klosterhoff and Brennan Torstrick were entrepreneurial leads; and medical technology entrepreneur Christopher Lee was the mentor.
• Cormatrix was led by technical lead/principal investigator Fatih Sarioglu (Petit Institute researcher and assistant professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering), entrepreneurial lead Ozgun Civelkoglu (graduate researcher at Georgia Tech) and mentor Jason Kim (director of osteoarthritis research programs for the Arthritis Foundation).
• PhasBio is the team that Sundell worked with as mentor. Entrepreneurial lead was Cameron Yamanishi, postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Shuichi Takayama, the team’s technical lead, who is a Petit Institute researcher who is a professor in the Coulter Department.
These three teams (featured here during a presentation for Petit Entrepreneurship Academy) went through the rigorous, approximately seven-week curriculum that begins with an in-person Kickoff, weekly online courses, an in-person Lessons Learned close-out session, and what has proven to be the most important aspect of the program, interviews. Many, many interviews. Team members see their frequent flyer miles soar as they travel the country to conduct at least 100 face-to-face interviews with potential customers and partners from the proposed target market(s).
The hard part is, the teams are not meeting potential clients to try and sell their ideas or their cool technology.
“This can be a shock to the system for six weeks or so, because you can’t really talk about your tech to these customers – we’re going to assume the technology is awesome by this point,” McGreggor said, noting that it’s a prerequisite for most teams that their technology or research had already received NSF funding. For teams whose work hasn’t been previously supported by NSF, there are shorter versions of the Teams curriculum, courses offered through sites like I-Corps South. PhasBio got into the national Teams program after completing one of those.
“The idea isn’t to present your technology like a show and tell, but to become an expert in the people who care about your technology,” McGreggor said. “This is all about the customer – who is going to use what you are making?”
Solomon noted that while commercialization of promising technology is not a universal imperative for an academic setting, “it’s a growing wave. For example, how do you justify to Congress to allocate more research dollars? You show them economic output, commercial impact.”
When considering her I-Corps training, Jenni Li quipped, “it’s about making hypotheses then disproving them, and finding your correct segment of the market.”
Teams like PhasBio and CytoArray (and most of their peers in the Teams program) often learn to pivot away from their own preconceived ideas about their tech or research, discovering what customers are actually looking for.
“What we realized is, even though we think our science is cool, there’s a difference between what is interesting stuff and what people will actually use or pay for,” noted Jackson-Holmes, whose team was working on a microfluidic tool. “Initially we thought our target market would be research and development scientists in the pharmaceutical companies – applications close to the ways we already knew.”
While doing their customer discovery, they realized they needed to change their target market. They shifted their focus from traditional immunotherapy to cell therapy companies, who need a better way to efficiently, automatically, and affordably test batches of cells. “That was our ‘aha moment,’” Jackson-Holmes said. “Cell therapy companies had problems that our tech could really address and have an impact on. We knew we had tech that could provide more information about cells, which they want – but they also value speed, automation, and ease of use.”
Now Jackson-Holmes and her colleagues plan to do additional customer discovery after leveraging the work they did through I-Corps to secure a seed grant from the NSF Center for Cellular Manufacturing and Technogy (CMaT) at Georgia Tech, “to validate some proof-of-concept data that we need to generate in the lab,” she said.
And that’s another benefit to the I-Corps experience. It can open doors to other resources on the road to market.
The PhasBio team shifted its focus before it ever embarked on its I-Corps Teams journey.
“Cameron was initially exploring use of this fluidic technology for diagnosis,” said Takayama, who had tested the tech on gene delivery years earlier, “but not as an application of the technology, just showing the capability. Then an actual need came up.”
An Emory researcher, Trent Spencer, leads a startup and a team of investigators trying to develop new cell therapies, so instead of developing the technology as a diagnostic tool for the clinic, the PhasBio team is focused on providing the tools that lead to a more affordable, efficient use of an expensive reagent in the gene delivery process. Spencer’s research team, said Yamanishi, “is the perfect case study for our potential customer.”
The changing focus and the I-Corps experience, putting the team in front of more than 100 potential uses of the technology, has made all the difference. For one thing, it leads to other opportunities – other funding sources. After PhasBio completed its winter 2019 I-Corps program, “they were invited to submit a proposal for funding from the Georgia Research Alliance,” Sundell said. “Organizations like GRA are requiring applicants to have experience in customer discovery or market research – they want applicants that have gone through I-Corps.”
The team was also invited to submit a proposal to Biolocity, and has received additional funding for its project from CMaT, “because their project is sophisticated and they’ve been transformed by the I-Corps experience,” Sundell said. “They are much more able to give a cogent argument as to why their tech is important and what industry pain it solves. The industry community loves the way they are able to describe the technology and its utility.”
It’s a place Takayama knows pretty well. He was the technology lead in a previous I-Corps cohort and it’s led to two licenses and two startups, one device cleared by the FDA, one that may yet be. And it has changed the way Takayama thinks of his work.
“It used to be like, ‘oh we’ve got great technology, it must be needed in the world,’” he said. “But no, you can have the coolest tech in the world, and even get to the point where it is a product cleared by the FDA, but what’s the point if there is no need. This time, knowing that you can go through all of this and still not be successful in the end, we worried less about the technology and more about the need, which seems very compelling.”
For Keith McGreggor, a veteran technology entrepreneur who has been spreading the tenets and lessons of the I-Corps model for years, it comes to a question of intention on the part of the entrepreneurial researcher: Do you want to create a business model, or engage in an expensive hobby? Of course, he’s trying to guide his students to the first option and has enjoyed watching the results, cohort by cohort, year by year.
“It’s a beautiful thing to make somebody go out and take an unvarnished look at the world and challenge their assumptions about how the world works,” he said. “It causes them to look at problems differently – not to change science or their research, but to see it in context of the greater good.”