What is the likelihood of faculty researchers becoming entrepreneurs and business owners?
That is a question being addressed and answered in the inaugural class of Innovation Corps, sponsored by the National Science Foundation. Twenty-one teams from universities around the country are working to assess the commercial readiness of solutions from current research, learning the strategies for establishing start-up companies and preparing business plans to present to venture capitalists.
Satish Kandlikar, a professor at Rochester Institute of Technology, is one of the first to participate in the Innovation Corps program that began this fall. Kandlikar, the Gleason Professor of Mechanical Engineering in RIT’s Kate Gleason College of Engineering, is focusing on an advanced thermal solution for LED, or light-emitting diode, lamps, a novel heat transfer concept he developed over four years of laboratory research, and the result shows commercial promise, he says.
“Currently LED lamps are limited because of inadequate cooling. LED lamps are very heavy, the light output is limited by their cooling ability and the color spectrum is difficult to manipulate,” says Kandlikar. “Our project addresses flexible, lightweight and efficient cooling solutions. We will be developing advanced LED lamps that will have these integrated thermal solutions.”
I-Corps teams receive guidance from private- and public-sector experts to develop business plans. They participate in a specially designed training curriculum and receive $50,000 to begin assessing the commercial readiness of their technology concepts.
Kandlikar and his graduate students, Ankit Kalani, from mechanical engineering, and Kirthana Kripash, from RIT’s E. Philip Saunders College of Business, are participating in the 12-week commercialization training course, led by entrepreneur Steve Blank, taking place at Stanford University. Suresh Sunderrajan, president of NNCrystal Corp., an advanced materials company delivering solutions to the global lighting industry, is mentoring Kandlikar and his team. The former director of Kodak’s venture capital division participates on site with the RIT team as well as in weekly teleconference and online meetings. In December, teams are expected to present their businesses in front of venture capitalists.
“We aren’t talking about corporate research and development,” Kandlikar says. “This is focused on a faculty member forming a company and commercializing a product.”
This is a slight departure from current research and technology transfer at universities, he says. Typically, faculty members balance classroom teaching with research in their fields of expertise, usually sponsored by organizations such as the National Science Foundation but also with corporations. Intellectual property is determined by projects and outcomes, often contracted arrangements between the researchers and the organizations.
At RIT, corporate research and development initiatives have focused on companies receiving the hand off of technology to begin manufacturing the new product. Faculty can publish findings and results; students can participate as members of the research team, getting real-world experience prior to graduation.
This new NSF initiative encourages faculty to establish their own corporate entity to do research and to reach out to business partners for manufacturing, Kandlikar further explains. They’d reap the benefits of owning the intellectual property, including the financial aspects. Research opportunities for students, the department and university would remain, and the new product can potentially be a revenue stream for both the faculty and the university.
At RIT, several entities are focused on encouraging entrepreneurship for students and faculty, from the Simone Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and Venture Creations to the Center for Student Innovation.
“In the U.S. we are lagging behind in entrepreneurship,” says Kandlikar. “Rochester’s culture is mainly driven by entrepreneurship. And unless we take an active role and graduate students who will stay here in Rochester and open businesses, we will have failed our local community.”
Whether the RIT team is successful with the venture capitalists in December is a secondary point, Kandlikar states. The technology can be used locally, and one of the immediate opportunities Kandlikar noted was the possibility of having RIT Facilities Management Services use the prototype lamps to demonstrate the feasibility of this green technology and showcase the value of the product as he and his co-researchers seek national and global markets.