ANN ARBOR—A new technology acceleration program will bring together university and community innovators from across the state to help them explore business opportunities around their technologies.
Launching May 7, Michigan I-Corps is a seven-week entrepreneurial training workshop funded by the National Science Foundation and modeled after its Innovation Corps program.
The statewide program begins with three days of onsite training and culminates with a two-day demo phase. In between, participants attend online lectures, conduct outreach to potential customers, blog about their progress, and receive extensive mentorship and coaching.
The national and regional I-Corps programs share a format and core curriculum, but there is one major difference: Only NSF-funded researchers (usually university faculty) are eligible to apply to the national program, but any Michigan-based technologist, regardless of academic affiliation or funding source, is eligible to participate in the regional program.
"I'm excited to see the entrepreneurial networks in and out of the university become much more intertwined," said Michigan I-Corps director Jonathan Fay. "Feedback between teams will be much richer because of the diversity of perspectives. My hope is that opportunities to collaborate between university and community participants will arise because each group is bringing different skill sets and experiences to the table."
Twenty-one teams will participate in the inaugural Michigan I-Corps cohort. Six are from U-M, eight are from other universities across the state, one is joint and six are community-based.
According to Fay, community teams typically fall into one of three categories: a local business that wants to spin out a new company or develop a new product line based on an invention; an entrepreneur who needs help moving a startup idea forward; or an individual who has invented a solution to an identified problem in an industry but isn't sure if there's an associated business opportunity.
Team GLSVSound falls into the first category. Team members Stephen Polakowski, Steven Mattson and Andrew Halonen are all either employees or contractors at GLSV Inc., an engineering services company based in Houghton, Mich. They are developing acoustic modeling software that simulates the noise of a product for use in virtual reality simulations. The software was originally designed for the U.S. Army to predict the sound of a military vehicle in a combat environment. The team members say they hope Michigan I-Corps will help them explore other commercial applications of the technology and provide them with formal business training.
"Where else can we apply this technology? What other types of virtual reality scenes are out there? Who else does it make sense for us to partner with? We have a pretty extensive product plan laid out but we're lacking in the business part of it," said Mattson, chief engineer at GLSV and entrepreneurial lead for team GLSVSound. "You know, we're engineers. To touch on the business development and planning end of it seems like a really valuable piece for us."
Mattson finds a technology commercialization program that promotes interactions between small businesses and academic researchers refreshing.
"The mechanisms for actually working together are not awesome at this point," he said. "There are R&D funding opportunities you can't pursue any other way. You have to have a university partner. If we could find someone who's willing to partner to pursue some collaborative research, we'd be thrilled."
Rich Sheridan is the president and CEO of Menlo Innovations, an Ann Arbor-based software design and development firm. He has been a local entrepreneur for 12 years and an adjunct assistant professor for entrepreneurial programs at the University of Michigan College of Engineering for two. During the last decade, Sheridan says he has witnessed a trend of increasing collaboration between U-M and Ann Arbor entrepreneurs.
"Twelve years ago, the university was a tall tower and no one really knew if there was a door to get in there. Now I see a significant blurring of the boundaries," Sheridan said. "We're starting to take down the walls and really collaborate with one another and Michigan I-Corps is another example of this."
Fay agrees that the state's tech startup scene will benefit from an improved flow of people and ideas between universities and their surrounding communities.
"One of the reasons why Stanford is such a powerful force in the Silicon Valley is because the boundary between the university and the local community is extremely porous," said Fay, who received a Ph.D. in biomechanics from Stanford and worked for several Silicon Valley-based medical device startups before joining the U-M Center for Entrepreneurship as an associate director last year.
"These types of interactions strengthen an entrepreneurial ecosystem and create an opportunity-rich environment. We have to create more collisions like this in Michigan. That's where great ideas are generated."
In addition to U-M, other university participants in the program come from Wayne State University, Oakland University, Eastern Michigan University, Michigan State University, Michigan Technology Institute and Grand Valley State University.
- Michigan I-Corps 2013 cohort: http://www.michiganicorps.com/may-2013-cohort/