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Julius Korley and Dan Freeman
The University of Delaware is a partner in the new NSF Innovation Corps (I-Corps) Northeast Hub, which will accelerate the transformation of scientific discoveries into technologies that improve lives. Professor Julius Korley (left) is co-director of the hub, and Professor Dan Freeman is faculty lead for UD. Photo illustration by Jeffrey C. Chase

UD a partner in regional innovation hub

Photos by Evan Krape and Ashley Barnas

Collaboration to accelerate tech, broaden diversity in entrepreneurship

The University of Delaware is a partner in a new regional innovation network, established with a $15 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), to accelerate the transformation of scientific discoveries into technologies that improve our daily lives.

The NSF Innovation Corps (I-CorpsTM) Northeast Hub, announced Aug. 25, is one of five new hubs in a nationwide NSF-funded network of universities formed to boost the economic impact of federally funded research – delivering benefits in health care, energy and the environment, computing, artificial intelligence, robotics, advanced materials and other areas – while building skills and opportunities among researchers from all backgrounds, including those historically underrepresented in entrepreneurship.

Princeton will serve as the principal institution in the I-Corps Northeast Hub, with the University of Delaware and Rutgers University as partner institutions. The hub also will include five initial affiliates: Delaware State University in Delaware, Lehigh University and Temple University in Pennsylvania, and New Jersey Institute of Technology and Rowan University in New Jersey. The hub will expand by adding new affiliates each year.

“The University of Delaware has a deep commitment to groundbreaking research and a successful history of moving those discoveries out of our labs to fuel the creation of businesses and other ventures, so we are thrilled to be a partner in the NSF I-Corps Northeast Hub,” said UD President Dennis Assanis. “This initiative will also open doors of opportunity for historically underrepresented researchers, innovators and entrepreneurs.”

Adam Stager
“NSF I-Corps helped our team understand where our technology could be used to solve real-world problems,” said Adam Stager (above), UD alumnus and founder and CEO of TRIC Robotics, which has developed an autonomous robot that can travel up and down rows of strawberries at night to deliver a dose of UVC light to deaden mold, mildew and mites, limiting the use of pesticides to battle these plant attackers. “The program taught our team how to talk to potential customers and learn how we could solve meaningful problems for them.”

Professor Julius Korley, inaugural director of entrepreneurship and strategic partnerships in the College of Engineering, will serve as co-director of the hub. Professor Dan Freeman, founding director of UD’s award-winning Horn Entrepreneurship initiative, will serve as faculty lead for UD. Horn Entrepreneurship will lead UD’s activities in the hub.

“The experience and dedication of professors Korley and Freeman, as well as the resources of Horn Entrepreneurship, will help ensure the success of the I-Corps Northeast Hub in connecting our diverse community of innovators with others throughout the region to benefit our entire economy and society,” Assanis said.

“Universities working together — Princeton, University of Delaware, Delaware State University, and others — to share resources and to support our next generation of entrepreneurs is exactly why Innovation Corps was founded, and why I was an early supporter of I-Corps,” said Sen. Chris Coons from Delaware. “I'm thrilled that two of Delaware's universities are part of the Northeast I-Corps hub.

The first 10 years of the I-Corps program have already helped a number of promising entrepreneurs translate ideas from the laboratory to the marketplace, and with the announcement of these new hubs, I look forward to seeing the gains our universities and students, especially those traditionally underrepresented in entrepreneurship, make toward commercializing new breakthrough technologies as a result of this important partnership.”

From lab discoveries to products, services

The new hub will make use of its proximity to “deep-tech industries” that revolve around fundamental discoveries in areas such as health care and pharmaceuticals, energy, the environment, earth- and water-friendly “green and blue” technologies, financial technologies, agriculture, communications and digital information.

CHS Innovation Lab
Innovation happens across the UD campus. Nathaniel George, neuroscience and biology major in the Honors College, and Sarah Garcon, doctoral student in mechanical engineering, work on their walking boot prototype at the Innovation Health & Design Lab at the University of Delaware.

As a Carnegie-classified Research-1 University, UD is home to powerhouse research institutes, centers and laboratories, where the next big ideas in these areas are being incubated, some through industry collaborations — on local to global scales.

“The NSF I-Corps Northeast Hub further enhances the environment we are creating at the University of Delaware to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship,” said Charlie Riordan, vice president for research, scholarship and innovation. “This work is critically important to transforming our discoveries into benefits for society.”

With funding from NSF over the next five years, the hub will provide researchers with the entrepreneurial training, mentoring and resources to form startup companies that translate laboratory discoveries into breakthrough products and services.

“I-Corps teaches inventors that not all the answers are in the laboratory,” said Korley, associate professor of biomedical engineering at UD, who will serve as co-director of the hub with Princeton’s Vice Dean for Innovation Rodney Priestley.

The I-Corps approach is based on the “lean startup” methodology in which innovators rapidly iterate on their products and business plans — refocusing, refining and improving them — based on customer feedback and market needs, Korley said.

“Instead of making assumptions, you have to get out of the lab and determine if there is a market for your invention by talking to customers, the eventual end users,” Korley said. “I-Corps helps you turn the ‘unknowns’ into ‘knowns.’”

Maker Gym
Students can exercise their creativity and problem-solving in the MakerGym, a unique makerspace at the University of Delaware.

An experienced entrepreneur, Korley co-founded the biomedical engineering company Affinity Therapeutics in 2010 and has served as its president and CEO since 2015. He is UD’s principal investigator in DRIVEN, an NIH-funded accelerator hub for medical entrepreneurship, and also is a nationally certified instructor for the National Institutes of Health I-Corps program.

As co-director of the NSF I-Corps Northeast Hub, Korley will be responsible for day-to-day operations across the eight member sites. A major focus will be to advance America’s future prosperity and global competitiveness by training the next generation of innovators from all backgrounds. Delaware State University, a Historically Black College and University, will co-lead the hub’s efforts to establish new partnerships with minority-serving institutions.

“Our commitment to diversity is evidenced in the composition of our leadership team,” Korley said. “We’re going to leverage our network to draw in more diverse candidates for all of these roles important to entrepreneurship — whether to become an I-Corps instructor, which can be a very meaningful career, or a mentor who serves as that critical sounding board, or as a trainee who goes on to launch a successful company. We’re very excited to get started.”

A force for innovation

Freeman will serve as one of four faculty directors in the hub.

“Many faculty are drawn into the academy by their passion for basic research and discovery,” said Freeman, who is an associate professor of marketing in the Lerner College of Business and Economics. “Through the hub and its training programs, we want to encourage faculty to explore broader impacts of their scholarship, thereby shifting their thinking from viewing discovery as an endpoint to seeing it as a milestone in a longer process of innovation and entrepreneurship that can develop their discoveries into life-changing products and services. With commitments to teaching, research and service, one of the biggest challenges faculty have is around time, so we want to make it as easy as possible for faculty to get involved.”

UD was funded previously by NSF as an I-Corps site, with Horn Entrepreneurship providing training to more than 135 teams of NSF-funded researchers at the University. Since 2017, 25 teams have gone on to form companies, generating nearly 100 jobs, most of them in Delaware, Freeman said.

Christina Pellicane, who previously managed UD’s I-Corps Site as the director of commercialization, will now serve as the hub’s lead instructor. Pellicane also is chief operating officer of Lignolix, a chemical tech startup spun out of UD research.

“It’s both a passion and a privilege to get involved with people making new possibilities for a better world,” Freeman said. “Societal progress is based on disrupting the status quo. If we’re not happy with the world we live in, then we have to do something different, something better. Entrepreneurs find a way and stick with it until they solve a problem.”

Doctoral student Olamide Idowu
Invention underway: University of Delaware doctoral student Olamide Idowu is working to invent new chemical reactions that will help advance science in areas ranging from the treatment of human disease to the development of advanced materials.

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