GW Research, Spring 2016

Fueling a Culture of Entrepreneurship

Volker Sorger, a professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, talks of a deep canyon. On one side are people like him, working in labs on provocative research.

May 28, 2015

Innovation Corps, or I-Corps, has begun building the bridge.

I-Corps, an entrepreneur-training program created by the National Science Foundation, is feeding GW’s rapidly growing culture of entrepreneurship. It joins the annual GW Business Plan Competition [see page 45]; the GW Entrepreneurs Roundtable, an interdisciplinary group of faculty members, students, alumni and university administrators who organize activities and mentoring opportunities around entrepreneurship; and Pitch George, where GW graduate students, undergraduates and local high school students present their business ideas to judges for a chance to win seed money.

“I-Corps is the most comprehensive tool in that toolbox,” says Jim Chung, the executive director of GW’s Office of Entrepreneurship. “Professors and graduate students may be experts in their areas, such as cold plasma or a particular disease or a pathway to a drug, but they don’t have business expertise,” he says. “I-Corps is about how to get the invention out of the lab and into the real world.”

The national program launched in 2011 for researchers who had past NSF grants. Two years later, NSF added seven “nodes,” or regional programs that carry no previous agency-funding requirement. The nodes include DC I-Corps, an initiative that started with three universities: the George Washington University, Virginia Tech and the University of Maryland, and now includes Johns Hopkins University, as well. At GW, the DC I-Corps office is housed within the Office of Entrepreneurship.

The first of DC I-Corps’ intensive boot camps was held in March 2014, hosting teams with projects as diverse as an autonomous sailing catamaran and a smartphone system that holds a patient’s full medical history. Since then, the program has welcomed 17 more groups in sessions ranging in duration from two to six weeks, with more on the books. 

After boot camp, participants who want additional training can take advantage of a program, called an accelerator, that offers further coaching on building a business and commercialization. 

“There has been a strong move with I-Corps to collaborate with other schools and the federal labs in the region, so a strength of the program is that we’re engaged with people outside GW, such as Children’s National Medical Center,” says Dan Kunitz, a GW employee who is director of the DC I-Corps Accelerator. “We’ve had teams come in from Howard University and George Mason. And this is very rewarding.”

DC I-Corps also recently hosted its first international boot camp, in Mexico City, in collaboration with Mexico’s National Council of Science and Technology, known as CONACYT, and the United States-Mexico Foundation for Science, or FUMEC. 

Mr. Kunitz says the node’s location in Washington and its access to embassies, international development agencies and other global entities is giving it a broad reach.

Mr. Chung says I-Corps is changing the way researchers think—and that carries a multiplier effect, because that shifting culture reaches students.

“We’ve had 20 professors go through both the national and regional programs—and even more graduate students and post-docs. That means we now have 20 professors who really understand the connection between their research and the market,” he explains. “We don’t want to lose them as researchers at GW, but we want to give them the understanding and methodology so they can apply it to their mentorship of students.”

Dr. Sorger, the engineer, is one of those 20 professors. He says I-Corps approaches entrepreneurship in a dramatically new way. 

“It used to be that you have an idea, you do a prototype, you alpha test and you beta test, you give it to people and you tweak it a bit,” he says. “But we learned that didn’t work, and making a prototype is an expensive way to fail.” In I-Corps, a team takes an idea at its early stage, asks the market what it wants and then decides if it can fulfill the need. Each DC I-Corps team consists of three members: an academic researcher, a student entrepreneur and a mentor or business expert.

Dr. Sorger cites a water quality technology he thought would be perfect for theme parks and cruise ships. “It turned out they already had things in place, plus they had regulations covering it,” he says. “So then we thought maybe it would work for public drinking water, but we found there wasn’t a big need.

“Then someone suggested we talk to the shellfish industry. Shellfish grow in coastal waters and when there is a storm, coastal waters can become contaminated,” he says.

Dr. Sorger says that experience taught him not to be wedded to an idea. It also showed him that only through networking—since he knew nothing about the shellfish industry—could he understand the scope of the market. He says graduate students pick up the additional skills of public speaking and outreach, things they won’t learn in the lab.

Serial entrepreneur Michael Keidar, the director of the
GW Institute for Nanotechnology and the Micropropulsion and Nanotechnology Laboratory, is a repeat visitor to I-Corps. He has been through the national program and the D.C. boot camp with a project involving the use of plasma to manufacture graphene and a space propulsion initiative that NASA is currently testing. 

The graphene project, which is patent pending, has been licensed to a small company. The space technology has been issued a patent, and Dr. Keidar is in talks with customers and investors.

“We learned a lot of things in terms of how to structure business and evaluate this particular idea,” he says, adding that he followed up on the projects by entering the
GW Business Plan Competition. “To a large extent, it involved thinking in a different way, to evaluate ideas from the beginning to see if there is potential in the market or if it is purely research.”

Mr. Chung says his office has four missions: to foster innovation, to advance education, to help students and faculty launch business initiatives and to make connections among investors, researchers and entrepreneurs.  

“I-Corps fits under all those rubrics,” he says.