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UI part of ‘Midwest I-Corps Node’ launching in January

A faculty-student research team at the University of Illinois creates a startup company called Rithmio to improve missile guidance and satellite control systems.

But through a federal program that helps businesses bring research to market, engineering Professor Prashant Mehta and postdoctoral student Adam Tilton discover they’ll have limited customers for that application.

Instead, they adapt their motion-recognition software to the growing wearable computing market. Their first product, called EDGE, pairs with sportwatches to track weightlifting workouts.

It’s one example of businesses that have benefited from the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps program, known as I-Corps, which is planning a new Midwest center to help more researchers turn their inventions into marketable products.

A $3.5 million grant will create the “Midwest I-Corps Node,” led by the University of Michigan’s Center for Entrepreneurship, along with the UI, Purdue University and the University of Toledo. All four already participate in the I-Corps program.

The new Midwest center will launch in January and be funded for five years. It’s intended as the “backbone” of a network that supports and connects academic researchers to the “entrepreneurial ecosystem” across the region, officials said in an announcement Wednesday.

The diversity and geographic reach of the four universities will help the region “connect technology, market needs, people and money together in a way that was not previously possible,” said Jonathan Fay, Midwest I-Corps Node executive director and managing director of Michigan’s entrepreneurship center.

The Midwest I-Corps will host intensive training programs designed to get scientists and engineers to look beyond the laboratory. It requires researchers to examine the commercial potential of their technology to avoid building a product that does not solve a customer’s problem or address their unmet need — the No. 1 reason startups fail, according to the NSF.

The UI has been a part of I-Corps for three years. One of several programs offered through the Enterprise Works incubator at the UI Research Park, the program has trained 120 entrepreneurial teams that went on to raise more than $25 million in outside funding for their startups, said Jed Taylor, director of operations at the UI’s Technology Entrepreneurship Center.

The new funding will allow the UI to expand that training to teams across Illinois and the Midwest in conjunction with the other schools, he said.

“It just provides more resources to grow our footprint and provide more resources to our teams and gives us the opportunity to have a bigger impact across the state,” Taylor said.

The NSF has for many years funded Small Business Innovation Research grants that provide up to $1.5 million to help startups turn research into commercial products. The I-Corps program, created five years ago, is considered a precursor to that effort, designed to “develop and nurture a national innovation ecosystem.” The I-Corps grants offer $2,000 for teams to participate in a regional program and another $50,000 for the national program.

The UI’s Technology Entrepreneurship center hosts four seven-week regional training sessions with 10 to 11 teams each year. The teams talk to at least 50 potential customers to find out their needs.

With the new funding, the UI’s tentative plan is to offer additional four training sessions around the state each year — on health care and medical devices (Chicago), manufacturing (Peoria), Big Data and agricultural technology (likely on the UI campus), Taylor said.

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