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Getting great ideas to market

Illustration by Jeffrey Chase

UD's OEIP helps faculty innovators get traction in business

Plenty of brainpower is at work every day at the University of Delaware, where researchers constantly pursue new ways of doing things, solutions to problems, and deeper understanding of our world.

When that work produces something potentially valuable to industry or other consumers, a different sort of expertise is essential – the kind provided by the University of Delaware's Office of Economic Innovation and Partnerships (OEIP).

OEIP is working with an increasing number of faculty members to launch their startups, including inventor Norman Wagner with STF Technologies, Adam Marsh with Genome Profiling, Willett Kempton with EV2G, Amy Cowperthwait with SimUCare, and Ajay Prasad with Sonijector.

Prasad is a distinguished and busy professor, scientist, engineer and director of UD's Center for Fuel Cell Research. He works to address challenges in the enormous field of sustainable energy.

He's good at it, too. He and several collaborators recently invented a device that has global implications for the fuel cell industry. It boosts efficiency, reduces maintenance and costs less – the proverbial hat trick.

What Prasad wanted no part of, though, was working through the stack of legal documents required to start a company and get that technology out to industry leaders who need it.

"I run away when I see legalese," said Prasad, College of Engineering Alumni Distinguished Professor. "All those 'whereases' and 'heretofores.' My brain just shuts down."

OEIP, formed in 2008 and directed by former DuPont vice president David Weir, knows what it takes to go from the drawing board to the production line and the marketplace.

And that is how Sonijector LLC was formed last year by Prasad and his colleagues and business partners Suresh Advani, the George W. Laird Professor and chair of UD's Department of Mechanical Engineering and associate director of UD's Center for Composite Materials; Doug Brunner, a graduate of UD's mechanical engineering program who works in computational modeling and designs the ejector's software, electronics, and mechanical components; and Adam Kinzey, who has a master's degree in mechanical engineering from UD and makes the ejectors and performs pre-shipping tests.

It's a process that should happen more often, Prasad said.

"At Stanford University, just about every professor has started three or four or five companies," he said. "Why should we not join that?"

Last month, Cowperthwait, simulation lab coordinator in UD's School of Nursing, was in Washington, D.C., to tell Congress about the technology her company, SimUCare, is developing to improve training for nurses and other medical professionals.

Cowperthwait's company was selected as a "Best University Startup" by the National Council of Entrepreneurial Tech Transfer, which  recognized SimUCare and 34 others as the nation's "most exciting early-stage companies" at its first Demo Day event.

The registered nurse credits OEIP with helping her take her ideas to partners who could design, build, test and refine an innovative device that allows students to learn and practice important medical procedures without injuring or traumatizing real patients in the process.

"Never in a million years did I think we'd start a business," she said.

Prasad knows fuel cell technology. Cowperthwait knows health care. Both needed help maneuvering in the world of business.

"The idea of competing in the [medical] simulation world – I get that," Cowperthwait said. "But competing in the business world?"

For that, they needed the expertise of people like Joy Goswami, assistant director of OEIP's Technology Transfer Center.

Part of Goswami's work is to test faculty ideas with a healthy dose of realism. Sometimes that douses big dreams or brings high hopes down to earth. But the discussions are data driven and essential to success. Increasingly, the ideas that survive that pruning process are finding real traction.

"We give them the horror stories," Goswami said. "Many faculty drop out. But we want to step up our efforts to get more faculty involvement and send the message that we exist."

OEIP has several units – the Delaware Small Business Development Center (DSBDC), the Technology Transfer Center (TTC), the Procurement Technical Assistance Center – that work together to move UD innovations toward the marketplace and connect those innovators with the economic development opportunities of Delaware.

"The functionality of OEIP is much greater than its parts," said Abagail Scout, program coordinator for DSBDC. "We combine pieces and leverage each other's resources."

The first step is to see if the faculty member has a legitimate invention or not. That bar is pretty high, Goswami said.

"Does it work? Is it novel? Is it useful? Is it something that is not obvious to someone skilled in the art?" Goswami said.

If they do, indeed, have an invention, a harder question arises.

"Is the invention, in reality, something of value?" Goswami said.

That's a tougher conversation. Business questions are quite different than the questions these researchers tackle in the lab or in the field. Not every finding is a discovery, not every discovery leads to an invention, and not every invention has a buyer.

The idea might collapse at any one of multiple points. And it's no use encouraging an innovator – no matter how much you want them to succeed – if the key intersections aren't showing green lights.

Sometimes, though, ideas make it.

Cowperthwait's SimUCare is demonstrating its SimUTrach product – a device that simulates the experience of performing tracheostomies on a patient – and moving toward beta testing for devices that simulate intravenous therapy and catheter placements, with more products on the drawing board.

Prasad's company, Sonijector LLC, has shipped prototypes to several manufacturers around the world.

Its device – the patent-pending variable area ejector – recirculates hydrogen in fuel-cell vehicles, providing a precise match of flow and demand. The device replaces an expensive, power-hungry, corrosion-prone pump used now and has been working flawlessly in UD's Fuel Cell Bus Program for a few years.

It is gaining traction with the help of OEIP and its partners, Prasad said.

"If we as faculty cannot lead by example, how can we preach to students to do this?" Prasad said. "I had just never taken the plunge."

With interest growing in Sonijector's device and multiple companies requesting prototypes to test, Prasad wants to point others to OEIP.

"OEIP wants us to be an example," he said. "They can point to us and say, 'They did it. They have been successful. We can do the same for you.'"

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