Knocking on doors. Getting your nose bloodied. Collecting “no” after “no” after “no.”
It’s not what first comes to mind when Tulane University researchers talk about commercializing their discoveries. But the school’s new Innovation Corps program, funded by the National Science Foundation, is changing that and giving students and academicians a better chance of turning their research into marketable products.
Tulane I-Corps Site Director Lars G. Gilbertson believes the program can change New Orleans’ entrepreneurial culture.
“New Orleans is known worldwide for its innovative approach to music, to food, to entertainment, for its culture,” Gilbertson said. “This process helps us to develop that same sort of very spirited mindset and practices for technical innovation and entrepreneurship.”
The program combines a targeted curriculum with guidance from established entrepreneurs to give researchers an economical and accelerated path to determine the potential market for their ideas. The National Science Foundation has awarded I-Corps site grants to 52 universities. The agency provides a curriculum and guidance but allows the schools to tailor the program to their needs.
LSU, which won a $100,000 grant in January, will begin a seven-week program in mid-July. Tulane, which won $163,000 in early 2015, is rolling out a two-week training program under Gilbertson’s leadership.
“So it’s more or less get your nose bloodied and get some initial ideas,” Gilbertson said with a laugh.
One might say Tulane’s I-Corps grant resulted from a collective punch in the snout suffered by Gilbertson; Donald Gaver, chairman of the Biomedical Engineering Department; Dr. James Korndorffer, vice chairman of the Department of Surgery at the Tulane School of Medicine; and Ann-Marie Job, Tulane’s bioinnovation Ph.D. program manager.
All of them had gone through biomedical engineering programs and performed research in them. All had seen great ideas generated and important technologies developed that never made it out of the lab. All of them knew that had to change.
“Because it’s important. What it is we’re working on has an impact on human health and well-being, that’s why we’re in it,” Job said.
Gilbertson took the group’s ideas, fleshed them out, applied for National Science Foundation funding and secured the three-year grant.
Job said I-Corps is great for researchers because it answers an important question: “What does it take to bring this nifty thing I’ve come up with to the market?”
There are lots of considerations to address before a health care discovery can be commercialized. In addition to meeting U.S. Food and Drug Administration requirements, projects also must be usable in a hospital setting, and insurance companies must be willing to cover the product’s use.
“And if you do not know about these considerations, you are sort of setting yourself up to not make it to the patient’s bedside,” Job said.
The university I-Corps Sites program provides up to $3,000 for participants to help researchers move their projects to the marketplace. University program participants also can apply for the I-Corps Teams, or national, program and its $50,000 grants.
Anita J. La Salle, who oversees I-Corps for the foundation, said the agency has spent just less than $100 million on the program since it began 4½ years ago. During that time, about 800 teams of potential entrepreneurs have completed the national program’s training. A little more than half of the teams launched startups, and those companies have attracted more than $100 million in investments.
“We would have been probably thrilled if we got 20 percent of them to consider doing startups. Getting 50 percent is quite amazing,” La Salle said.
The results are a tribute to the program’s designers and the resilience of the teams, which consist of an academic, like Gilbertson, who actually accepts the grant award; an entrepreneurial lead, usually a post-doctoral or grad student who does the legwork to commercialize the technology; and a mentor, typically a serial entrepreneur who can help guide the student through the startup process.
As part of the “Teams” training, the entrepreneurial lead must interview roughly 100 potential customers in about six weeks.
“I would say 80 percent of them pivot from their original idea, and I think that’s the secret sauce,” La Salle said.
By leaving the university setting, getting out of the lab and talking to those potential customers, researchers find out what customers and clients actually need. It may be the researcher’s original idea or it may be something quite different.
The team’s members have to be open-minded and mentally tough, she said.
“Because if they fall in love with their technology, they’re doomed, but if they can get out there and really talk to folks and find out what the world needs, they have a much a higher probability of success,” she said.
Nicholas Pashos, founder and CEO of Tulane spin-out BioAesthetics and graduate of the I-Corps Teams program, is the creator of an off-the-shelf-ready, nipple-areolar complex graft that surgeons can use to reconstruct the breasts of women who’ve undergone mastectomies.
He had talked to 15 or 20 surgeons, some biotech company owners and other health professionals while researching his idea. But the idea of interviewing 100 potential customers was a little overwhelming.
“It was a little difficult to begin with because I didn’t really know how to start it all,” Pashos said.
He started making cold calls and emails. He didn’t talk about his graft until the end of an interview, if at all. Instead, he asked potential customers what their needs were, what was lacking in current reconstruction options. Once people understood what Pashos was doing, they wanted to know more and they began to help. One potential customer introduced Pashos to another. Doors began to open. He went to scientific conferences and networked.
None of those interviews changed his actual product. But talking to surgeons and watching them do breast reconstructions completely changed his idea of how the grafts should be packaged.
Pashos figured the grafts would require 30 minutes or more of preparation time. But he realized the surgeons needed a graft that was ready immediately. Adding 30 or 45 minutes to an already long surgery would hamper the doctors’ workflow and prevent them from helping other patients.
Follow Ted Griggs on Twitter, @tedgriggsbr.