George Mason University researchers are constantly working to serious real-world problems. For these academic discoveries to have the greatest possible impact in the shortest span of time, they would have to be brought out of the lab and into society at scale. A highly efficient vehicle for this is commercialization.
However, the start-up ecosystem and academia can be very different worlds. Good entrepreneurs may have difficulty translating scientific insights to the marketplace. Academics are often motivated by the pure love of science and may struggle to identify viable commercial opportunities.
The National Science Foundation (NSF)’s I-Corps program is an accelerator that helps entrepreneurs and researchers work together “to bring invention to impact.” The program consists of both financial support and experiential education designed to fast-track the commercialization of scientific discoveries.
Mason serves as an official I-Corps site, supporting local grantees through the exploratory stages of venture-building, as well as preparing them to apply for the national-level program. The current site grantees are David J. Miller, director of the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the School of Business, and Ali Andalibi, senior associate dean of the College of Science.
I-Corps teams comprise an entrepreneurial lead, typically a student or post-doc; an academic lead, usually a staff or faculty member; and a mentor, who can be a non-Mason affiliate.
Several Mason teams have been selected as I-Corps participants. In 2019, for example, Ancha Baranova, a professor of systems biology at Mason, and Harsha Rajasimha, a Mason academic affiliate and former head of health care R&D at NTTDATA Services, travelled to Boston where they completed the program as the highest-performing team in the cohort.
The idea Baranova and Rajasimha took to I-Corps was to build a platform for remote clinical trials. Before COVID-19, patients in pharmaceutical clinical trials were required, almost without exception, to show up for a series of medical appointments in person. Not surprisingly, recruiting enough participants was a perennial challenge for trial organizers. It was a lose-lose for both the scientists and patients who might otherwise have benefited from innovative treatments. The Mason team envisioned a Zoom-like solution that would radically democratize access to potentially life-saving experimental therapies.
Baranova and Rajasimha describe their seven-week I-Corps experience as tough but extremely rewarding. The curriculum is based on Steve Blank’s famous “Lean LaunchPad” start-up course at Stanford University, which trains budding entrepreneurs to apply the scientific method to building a business—an ideal approach for translating research insights into commercial innovation.
I-Corps participants are taught to treat their proposed business model as an experiment whose hypotheses must be rigorously tested before moving forward. They gather feedback from a battery of experienced industry professionals, immersing themselves in the ecosystem they plan to enter and emerging from each interview with quantifiable knowledge.
The subsequent launch of Jeeva Informatics, of which Rajasimha currently serves as CEO, would not have been possible without I-Corps, the pair said. Since graduating from the program, Rajasimha has received funding from more than 20 investors and an inaugural Commonwealth Commercial Fund grant from the Commonwealth of Virginia. Jeeva has become a full-scale provider of cloud-based tech solutions allowing trial organizers to recruit participants three times faster than before, according to company literature.
Baranova is also passing the knowledge gained onto Mason students.
“I-Corps insights were incorporated into the teaching curriculum at Mason, particularly is the class Research and Development in a Biotechnological Company, which equips biology majors with bankable experiences preparing them to apply to industry jobs and to start new ventures,” said Baranova.
Mason engineering professor David Lattanzi and Mason alum Ali Khaloo made up another I-Corps team. They said the I-Corps curriculum helped them develop their initial idea—a centralized data management platform for civil engineers and inspectors—into a start-up with clear and feasible plans for growth.
For Khaloo, who graduated from Mason with a PhD in civil and infrastructure engineering, I-Corps was “life-changing,” setting him on a path to becoming the entrepreneur and graduate of Cornell Tech Runway Startups he is today.
“The creation of an NSF I-Corps site at Mason has added a new dimension to the university’s already robust entrepreneurship and innovation infrastructure,” said Hina Mehta, director of Mason’s Office of Technology Transfer. “It helps tie together our research faculty and graduate and undergraduate communities with the broader business and entrepreneurial communities in Northern Virginia and throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia.
I-Corps is actively soliciting new applicants for 2022, aided by a substantial grant earmarked to expand inclusivity in entrepreneurship. In addition, Nov. 17 marks the beginning of an eight-month I-Corps Wearables Initiative at Mason, in which industry experts and mentors host sessions at venues including the MIX at Horizon Hall on the Fairfax Campus.
“From health and fitness, to industrial, defense and daily convenience, the wearables segment is growing with opportunities for researchers, innovators and entrepreneurs,” said Miller.
For more information or to submit an application, visit the I-Corps website.