Scientists experience the value of market research
ON THE GREEN | Computer science Prof. John Cavazos spent last semester feeling a little frazzled. In addition to teaching classes on campus, the aspiring entrepreneur met with 100 business owners in a seven-week span to learn whether his ideas have commercial potential.
The exercise was part of his National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (I-Corps) grant, awarded through a program aimed at equipping entrepreneurial hopefuls with the skills to successfully start a business and take research ideas from concept to marketable product.
Twenty-one teams composed of academic researchers, student entrepreneurs and business mentors were selected nationwide for the program in 2013. Cavazos’ group earned one of two I-Corps grants awarded to UD. The other went to a team led by Elisa Schrank, a postdoctoral researcher in kinesiology and applied physiology.
The I-Corps program includes an intensive three-day workshop, where participants hear lectures from entrepreneurial leaders and then present their ideas and begin developing business plans. Students serve as the entrepreneurial lead on each team, placing them on equal footing with the grant’s principal investigator, while business mentors provide advice and open doors.
A major component of the program, called “Get out of the building,” requires participants to interview customers to understand the market’s true needs and determine if their ideas fit the bill.
“They often don’t even want us mentioning our technology because the goal is to listen to the customers,” Schrank says.
Also key is what Cavazos calls the “pivot moment.”
“This is when your business concept evolves and changes based on what the interviews reveal,” he says.
Cavazos’ I-Corps team includes postdoctoral researcher Marco Alvarez and mentor Ed Henckler, a business strategist from Philadelphia. They plan to develop a system that can detect real-time traffic congestion from surveillance videos using computer vision techniques and machine learning.
The goal is not to solve the problem of congestion, but rather to give transportation officials the tools to mitigate congestion by getting help to problem areas sooner or by setting up alerts that can slow the flow of traffic toward an affected area before a bottleneck occurs.
Early on, the team met with transportation representatives in Delaware, Illinois and Pennsylvania, in addition to attending a national transportation systems meeting in Tennessee. Cavazos says that even while their product was still evolving, the entrepreneurial experience has already changed the way he teaches and advises students.
“Now when students come to me with an idea, I automatically ask, ‘Who are your customers?’” he says.
Schrank’s team includes Alex Razzook, a doctoral student in UD’s Biomechanics and Movement Science Program, and business mentor Ted Foltyn. They propose a unique manufacturing framework to develop customized ankle-foot orthoses, an ankle brace for individuals with muscle weakness. The technology harnesses the strengths of modern tools, including 3D digitizing and computer-aided design and solid freeform fabrication, to precisely customize and rapidly manufacture prosthetics and orthotics.
Early discussions with manufacturers and clinicians locally and in Atlanta, Florida, Illinois and New York revealed some challenging hurdles.
“Helping clinicians who take pride in their customization skills see the value in using technology to their advantage without taking away their creativity is difficult,” Schrank says. “We are realizing how large the discrepancies are between researchers and an audience who often do their job ‘by feel,’ and figuring out how to bridge those gaps.”
No stranger to the startup world, Razzook received $4,700 in funding last year from the Hen Hatch, UD’s premier business startup funding competition, for his Mobiletech Orthopedics concept, which featured a patented prosthetic design.
Hen Hatch is part of the Horn Program in Entrepreneurship, funded by Charles W. Horn, AS75, and his wife, Patricia.
Now, Razzook says, he is excited to add tools gained through I-Corps to his skill set as he begins his career.
“If I decide to pursue an idea, I now understand how to research it up front and know before I move forward whether the technology has commercial viability,” he says.
“[The program] definitely gives a different perspective. It’s not enough to create a great technology that no one cares about.”
Article by Karen B. Roberts, AS90