Not long ago, assistant professor Sihong Wang and Zeynep Dereli Korkut, who earned her Ph.D. in Wang’s lab at City College’s Grove School of Engineering, would have rhapsodized about the dinner-mint-sized chip that simultaneously evaluates the effectiveness of dozens of cancer drugs on an individual patient’s tumor cells. Now, thanks to entrepreneurship training that CUNY leads with Columbia and New York Universities, they also discuss commercializing the device.
If there’s one thing Dereli has learned, it’s “the importance of customers. If there’s no demand for your technology, there’s no reason to try to market it.”
Understanding that a gee-whiz discovery doesn’t necessarily translate into a whiz-bang product is a key message in the program, which is available to college-based researchers nationwide.
“The National Science Foundation established commercialization training because potentially game-changing discoveries that it had funded were not being taken to the marketplace as often as they should,” said Vice Chancellor for Research Gillian Small. She also is the principal investigator for the training initiative, the New York City Regional Innovation Node (NYCRIN, pronounced ny-srin), which NSF designated in March 2013 and financed with $3.74 million over three years.
NYCRIN includes 22 other universities in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut, including Princeton, Yale and SUNY.
“Our aim is to become a global leader in technology innovation and entrepreneurial business development by leveraging the innovation ecosystem in New York City, which meshes with other initiatives aimed toward building research and entrepreneurship at CUNY,” Small said. Those initiatives include the University’s technology transfer office, which licenses patented discoveries, and a forthcoming business incubator.
NSF designated similar centers at Georgia Tech; University of Michigan; University of Maryland; with George Washington University and Virginia Tech; and University of California-Berkeley, with Stanford and UC-San Francisco.
NYCRIN trains entrepreneurial teams to determine whether a discovery is commercially viable and, if so, whether licensing or starting a company makes more sense. More broadly, it intends to encourage entrepreneurship in the consortium through lectures, webinars, networking and other means.
Each three-person team consists of a professor, a doctoral or post-doctoral student and a business mentor. The student is the team leader on the theory — and this is a generalization — that he or she is more likely to take risks and have entrepreneurial drive, while professors are more likely to want to pursue basic research in academia.
John Blaho, who leads CUNY’s technology innovation/entrepreneurship teaching efforts, underlined the importance of mentors — and not only to facilitate the shift from an academic to a business mindset. “When inventors get into the real world and discover, say, that their remote-sensing discovery could be developed as a medical device, the mentor needs connections and a Rolodex in that sector.”
Universities generally own the patents to researchers’ discoveries and take equity positions in startups, although professors retain some rights. “If we don’t play in this arena, the most creative faculty will not come or stay here,” Small said. Other universities, particularly in California, have the research-commercialization loop down to, well, a science.
NSF awards each team that it selects $50,000 for the training. The centers use the same seven-week, National Innovation Corps (I-Corps) curriculum, which mixes in-person instruction and webinars. Teams must interview 100 industry experts and potential customers before making a go/no-go decision on starting a company. Teams draft a business plan with metrics for estimating the chance of financial success.
Speaking at a NYCRIN informational event in July, Errol Arkilic, who runs a nonprofit venture capital fund for startups, said he created I-Corps when he was at NSF “as a direct result of the gaps we saw in translating research out of labs.” He targeted the “ditch of death” where nascent companies foundered before being able to apply for large federal grants that can take startups from the “it’s-a-go” stage to “we’ve made it.”
At the event, Medgar Evers assistant chemistry professor Michele Vittadello said that under an Air Force contract, he seeks “a bottom-up reconstruction of the molecular components of photosynthesis to produce hydrogen.” In the process, he developed a resin that he says can purify proteins far better than existing products. “It’s predicted that in the next 10 years, seven to 10 of the most-sold drugs will be proteins isolated from natural resources,” he says.
Wang and Dereli of City College are in I-Corps training at Berkeley. Oncologists could use their device — which has 100 chambers, each less than a millimeter wide — to quickly find the best drug to treat each patient. Pharmaceutical companies could use a larger version to simultaneously test thousands of potentially therapeutic compounds.
Dereli is reaching out to regulators and to hospitals and insurance companies, which would pay for individuals’ tests.
Wang said the most useful information she heard from oncologists is “that the market doesn’t need a perfect product, as long as it functions.” Previously, she had worked to shrink the tubes that feed fluids to the device, which measures about 1 x ½ x ½ inches. “As engineers, we first want our baby to be perfect. It’s hard to say, ‘We’ve done enough.'”