In an effort to nurture a regional innovation ecosystem and move more discoveries from the research lab to the real world, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has established a Great Lakes Innovation Corps Hub and Michigan Technological University plays a key role.
The 11-university Hub is led by the University of Michigan (U-M), and it’s one of five Hubs across the country announced Aug. 26 as NSF continues to evolve the I-Corps program. Launched in 2011, the NSF Innovation Corps, or I-Corps, trains scientists and engineers to carry their promising ideas and technologies beyond the university and into the marketplace to benefit society.
In addition to Michigan Tech and U-M, the Great Lakes Hub includes Purdue University, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the University of Toledo, the University of Minnesota, Iowa State University, Missouri University of Science and Technology, the University of Akron, the University of Chicago, and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
The Impact of I-Corps
Each university in the Great Lakes Hub already has a successful I-Corps program. Michigan Tech has been part of the NSF I-Corps Site program since 2015. Over the past five years, Michigan Tech’s I-Corps Site has helped introduce the entrepreneurial mindset to over 300 researchers, faculty, staff, and students, and helped teams assess the commercial potential of nearly 150 technologies.
The Great Lakes I-Corps Hub aims to connect people at a large scale to increase the “effective density” of the Midwest’s innovation ecosystem. Mary Raber, Michigan Tech I-Corps principal investigator and chair of the Department of Engineering Fundamentals, said Michigan Tech researchers will be able to engage with the other members of the Hub and benefit from the extensive resources available throughout the Great Lakes region.
“Being invited to join the Great Lakes Hub is reflective of the success of Michigan Tech’s I-Corps Site program and the number of teams that have been selected to attend the National I-Corps program,” said Raber.
Other members of the Michigan Tech I-Corps team include Lisa Casper (Pavlis Honors College), Jim Baker (Office of the Vice President for Research), Michael Morley, and Nate Yenor (Office of Innovation and Commercialization), and Jonathan Leinonen (College of Business).
“The Great Lakes region is home to many of the world’s leading research institutions, and many of our nation’s critical industries. Our goal with this I-Corps Hub is to leverage this intellectual depth to create a lasting economic impact on the region,” said Alec D. Gallimore, the U-M Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering, the Richard F. and Eleanor A. Towner Professor, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, and a professor of aerospace engineering.
“We’ll do this by creating new businesses, by keeping our existing companies globally competitive and on the leading edge of technology, and by developing talent that not only has technical and cultural expertise, but also an entrepreneurial mindset,” he said.
The new Great Lakes Hub has set a goal of training 2,350 teams in the next five years and sending an additional 220 teams to a more in-depth National NSF I-Corps program.
In this way, I-Corps is helping to fill what Jonathan Fay, executive director of the U-M Center for Entrepreneurship, calls the “widening gap” between the cutting-edge research being done at universities and the development work of industry to turn research into societal benefit and economic gain.
“U.S. universities are set up to reward scientific breakthroughs, but not necessarily the hard work of turning that discovery into social or economic impact,” Fay said. “On the industry side, investing in long-range R&D is expensive with uncertain payoffs. This has led to a shift in the industry away from research and toward development.”
“What I-Corps does is fill that gap by changing both the mode of thinking and the social networks of the academic community so we can maximize the benefits of publicly funded research by finding the right place within the industry for a new breakthrough to take hold,” he said.
A Proven Track Record of Success
Each university in the Hub already has a successful I-Corps program, and the new model will make it easier for them to network and learn from one another. Supported through Husky Innovate, Michigan Tech’s innovation and entrepreneurship resource hub, the University will continue offering I-Corps training and support to faculty, students and staff who are developing new ideas and want to explore their commercial viability. “Michigan Tech is an integral part of the Great Lakes Hub,” said Raber.
Teams that have successfully participated in the Michigan Tech I-Corps Site program include:
● Nanosound Inc. is focused on quieting noise from pipes and ducts, such as building HVAC systems, by using active noise control and carbon nanotube technology. Nanosound has secured an initial investment and has partnership agreements with multiple companies to further develop the technology.
● SwimSmart aims to enhance beach safety through smart and connected beachfront technologies that improve swimmer situational awareness, increase forecast frequency and accuracy, and assist lifeguards, first responders and beach managers in their efforts toward the greater goal of ending drownings in our communities. SwimSmart products are on beaches this summer in Frankfort and Muskegon, Michigan, with expansion planned for next year.
● Stabilux Biosciences is commercializing fluorescent imaging compounds with enhanced and tunable brightness, which enables levels of detection which had been previously unattainable. Applications for this technology include biomedical research and medical diagnostics. Stabilux has raised $4 million in follow-on funding to date.
● ZiTechnologies is commercializing technologies that enable the beneficial utilization of plastic from industrial and post-consumer waste streams. It has recently received a $256,000 grant through NSF’s Small Business Innovation Research Program Phase I (SBIR) to continue the commercialization process.