by Sally Logue Post
From the Laboratory to the Shark Tank
With the university’s first I-Corps grant, a Texas Tech team learns about the business side of science.
A university research laboratory is a place of strict controls. But what happens when a researcher and a graduate student are suddenly thrown into the rough-and-tumble world of business?
For graduate student Deepak Solomon and Siva Vanapalli, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, the experience taught them that discovering a new technology is the easy part.
“We had no idea what we were getting into,” said Solomon.
Vanapalli and Solomon received a National Science Foundation (NSF) Innovation Corps (I-Corps) grant in 2013–the very first I-Corps award at Texas Tech. According to the agency’s website, the grant is meant to foster entrepreneurship that will lead to the commercialization of technology that has been supported previously by NSF-funded research.
The grant was their entrée into the world of business.
Into the Shark Tank
Their journey began in 2011, when the Vanapalli laboratory came up with a simple microfluidic device, about the size of a penny, that could replace the current drug screening systems. Vanapalli had filed for a provisional patent on the technology, and Solomon was ready to take the next step into the marketplace.
“Deepak was excited to translate our technology outside the lab, and he really pushed me hard to apply for the I-Corps grant,” said Vanapalli.
Vanapalli and Solomon were one of 20 teams receiving the grant and invited to participate in an initial meeting in Atlanta in October.
“We thought it would be a classroom setting, and we’d listen to lectures,” said Solomon. “But that was not the case. The first hour was a lecture, and then they told us to get out of the building and go interview five potential customers. We’re in a city where we know no one. The first day we were kicked out of two companies.”
And it got worse from there. The teams had to come back and present on their progress. Solomon and Vanapalli reported they were not able to interview five customers, so the NSF teaching team told them not to even bother to present.
The rough start didn’t stop the team–it pushed them harder. They went home with an assignment to interview 100 potential customers and report back to Atlanta in eight weeks to make a final presentation.
Learning the Business of Business
Each team is made up of three people: the researcher, Vanapalli in this case; Solomon, the student entrepreneur lead; and David Harmon, the Lubbock investor-in-residence at the Texas Tech University System Office of Technology Commercialization.
The key to the I-Corps program is not to sell the product, but to figure out where the technology fits in the marketplace–called the customer discovery process. It was the Texas Tech team’s first lesson in business.
“We learned that it may not always be obvious where your technology would work,” said Solomon. “The end user can turn out to be someone very different than what you expected at the beginning.”
Finding 100 customers to interview made for a few long, sleepless weeks for Solomon, in particular.
Vanapalli said he tried to help with the customer list by calling people from his graduate school days, people he hadn’t talked to in a decade. Solomon used everything from social media to the yellow pages to find names, and Harmon was able to provide some of his business contacts.
“Deepak made lots of cold calls,” said Vanapalli. “He was on the phone in the very early mornings, talking to people overseas. I don’t know how he did it, but he did. I would not have been able to do it.”
“I was really getting beaten up,” laughed Solomon. “But I knew David and Siva were behind me. The tracking mechanism that NSF used really made us competitive. We could see how the other universities were doing, and that would get us riled up, and I’d try even harder.”
Listening and Learning
College of Engineering
The Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering has educated engineers to meet the technological needs of Texas, the nation and the world since 1925.
Approximately 4,300 undergraduate and 725 graduate students pursue bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees offered through eight academic departments: civil and environmental, chemical, computer science, electrical and computer, engineering technology, industrial, mechanical and petroleum.
Office of Technology Commercialization
The Office of Technology Commercialization works with researchers and business partners to help translate research discoveries into commercial applications and successfully bring them to market. This work provides a social and economic return to society’s investment in the basic research carried out at the component institutions of the Texas Tech University System.
OTC services include:
- Identify commercially viable inventions
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Harmon listens to them tell their story with a smile.
“I loved the idea of making cold calls and listening to what people had to say,” he said. “It sounded like a wild enough idea that I wanted to get involved. It was exactly what I have always experienced in business.”
The most important lesson: listening to the customer.
“I learned that by listening to the people who might ultimately use our technology, it gave us insight into what they would like to see and how it might benefit them,” said Solomon.
Harmon says forcing the researchers to learn about their customers is the most important thing NSF’s program could do.
“One problem I’ve seen over and over in dealing with inventors over the years as a banker is that they believe people will line up to buy their product,” he said. “That’s just not the way it works. This program has them talk to the end user, to find out if the product can solve the problems the users have. The biggest part of sales is listening to the user.”
The process also taught the team how businesses are structured.
“The people who might actually use your technology are not always the people who will write the check to buy the product,” said Vanapalli. “We had to figure out the chain of command and understand the ecosystem of who makes what decisions.”
Back to the Shark Tank
At the end of the eight weeks, the team returned to Atlanta for their final presentation before, what Harmon describes as, a more sophisticated version of the television show “Shark Tank.”
“Each group had to present in front of an NSF panel,” said Harmon. “The panel was tough. They would tell a team what they did wrong, even tell them their product just won’t work. But Texas Tech’s team did great. There was no real criticism of the presentation, and there was a lot of support for their project.”
Both Vanapalli and Solomon took important lessons from the experience. The I-Corps project taught them about a lean startup company philosophy, one where it’s important to go through a discovery process with actual customers before trying to start a company.
“We learned that you don’t go into the lab, design a project and then go sell it,” said Vanapalli. “You need to know what that marketplace needs. Find out what the problems are and if you can develop something that will actually solve the problems.”
For Solomon, who will graduate with his doctorate in May, he’s ready to launch a startup company to commercialize the drug testing technology.
“It has given me a lot of confidence to apply for NSF’s Small Business Innovation Research grant to help us move our technology to the marketplace,” said Solomon.
Vanapalli also has a new outlook on how he teaches his students.
“In my lab I can control the risk,” he smiled. “But outside, who knows–and it makes me nuts. I’m very happy to be the scientist and not the CEO. I’m carved from different material than Deepak and David. They like to take risks. I’m just happy to see an idea that started in my lab find its way to market.”
While he may not want to move into the business end, Vanapalli will change what he teaches.
“I will talk to my students, undergraduate and graduate alike, about how to do market discovery,” he said. “I would maybe like to have a class or some sort of forum to talk about entrepreneurship as it relates to research in the laboratory. I think it opens a whole new window of opportunity and can make a remarkable change in the whole ecosystem at Texas Tech.”
With so many new innovations coming from university research laboratories, Harmon says he’s happy to be part of a program that teaches and encourages entrepreneurship.
“It is great fun to work with Deepak and Siva,” he said. “And as a taxpayer I can tell you this is the best use of tax dollars I have ever seen.”
New Micro-Device Could Change Drug Testing
A new device about the size of a penny invented in a Texas Tech University lab could replace the current pharmaceutical drug screening systems.
The computer chip-sized microfluidic technology was invented by Siva Vanapalli, assistant professor of chemical engineering, along with members from his research group.
To develop a new drug, a company must develop not only the drug compound, but also determine how much of the drug should be given to a patient to be effective, an expensive and time-consuming process.
The pharmaceutical industry screens hundreds of thousands of drug candidates each year using large robots that deliver one specific concentration of the drug at a time.
“Our lab has demonstrated testing 60 concentrations of a drug in about 10 minutes, and we expect to be able to improve on those numbers in future devices,” said Vanapalli.
The new device looks like a computer chip with multiple microchannels and nanoliter-capacity wells to hold an array of droplets of a substance. A scientist can vary the presence of other materials from drop to drop, thus testing multiple concentrations of the drug at the same time.
In effect, the device creates a microfluidic parking network. Like spaces in an automobile parking lot, trains of water drops and/or long plugs travel down the microfluidic tubes and are routed into droplet “parking spaces.”
“Our chip changes the process in two ways,” said Vanapalli. “We can do multiple concentrations of the drug at one time. That means we can use a sample maybe 1,000 times smaller than the amount currently used, and we can do the same work in a much shorter time period. In short, making the drug screening process faster and more inexpensive for the pharmaceutical company and, hopefully, reducing the ultimate cost to the consumer.”
As is sometimes true in scientific experiments, the development of the microfluidic droplet arrays for drug testing was actually an accident.
“We were working on a different type of experiment, but the outcome led us down this path,” said Vanapalli. “It is incidents like this that make science exciting.”
Sally Logue Post is Director of Research & Academic Communications for the Office of the Vice President for Research at Texas Tech University.