Rowan University researchers are developing promising ideas and new technology in their labs—the trick is getting their new inventions out into the marketplace. The National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program accelerates the commercialization process.
Since 2018, Rowan researchers have earned 10 national I-Corps awards, plus another through the National Institutes of Health—more than any other R2 institution without a formal designation as an I-Corps site or node, noted Dr. Yatin Karpe, director of the University’s Office of Technology Commercialization and Rowan Innovations.
It’s an indicator of Rowan’s emerging reputation for innovation and self-driven entrepreneurial focus, said Dr. Tabbetha Dobbins, interim vice president for research.
“The I-Corps program is the National Science Foundation’s chief mechanism for developing innovators among university faculty,” Dobbins said. “Rowan University’s track record demonstrates we’re a fast-growing incubator for big ideas.”
The I-Corps program teaches researchers how to tailor their ideas to meet the needs of potential customers and industry, and gain a clearer understanding of the value of their inventions in the marketplace. Designed to support “deep technologies” stemming from fundamental discoveries in science and engineering, the I-Corps program includes regional training workshops and networking opportunities for researchers.
Fifteen Rowan teams have attended regional I-Corps training, qualifying them for potential national funding, Karpe said. That’s a significant achievement for an institution that doesn’t serve as an I-Corps training site, since busy faculty researchers aren’t required to invest the time and energy into building a new venture.
“We get them excited and get them to understand the entrepreneurial process,” said Karpe, who used his own connections to tap Rowan into the I-Corps network.
A growing national initiative involving eight federal agencies, the I-Corps program has been pivotal in helping translate scientific discoveries into products and processes that benefit society, said Christina Pellicane, a nationally certified NSF I-Corps instructor and independent consultant specializing in entrepreneurship education.
“Rowan University has a strong foundation of basic research and, nowadays, also has a culture of entrepreneurship and innovation—not only at the faculty level, but also within upper administration,” said Pellicane, who is also COO and co-founder at Lignolix, a chemical tech startup. “That combination of strong scientific research and an entrepreneurial-minded culture will continue to reap strong technology-enabled startups.”
Dr. Nidhal Bouaynaya earned Rowan’s first $50,000 national I-Corps award to support her innovation: artificial intelligence to dramatically improve the detection of brain tumors—about three years earlier than the standard of care. She’s also the first researcher from Rowan to secure additional I-Corps training through the National Institutes of Health Small Business Innovation Research funding program.
“Everything is done by eye-balling nowadays with doctors, or by hand,” said Bouaynaya, who co-founded MRIMath, LLC, in 2017 with Dr. Hassan Fathallah-Shaykh, a neuro-oncologist and mathematician at the University of Alabama School of Medicine. “We built an AI agent that achieves pixel-level accuracy and delineates the tumor, computing exact volumetrics and 3D coordinates for tumor surveillance in neuro-radiology and radiotherapy in oncology.”
The I-Corps program gave their Rowan-affiliated startup a jump on product development.
“The NSF I-Corps training helped my team take our research outside of the lab and define a data-driven commercialization plan,” said Bouaynaya, professor in the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering and associate dean for Research and Graduate Studies at the Henry M. Rowan College of Engineering.
With his I-Corps support, Dr. Mohammad Abedin-Nasab and his team interviewed 143 trauma surgeons, hospital executives and patients with broken femurs, “finding a huge unmet need for improving the alignment outcomes of femur fracture surgery.”
Since then, he has successfully taken his orthopedic surgical robotic system, Robossis, through cadaver testing.
“It was a major milestone for commercialization of the first surgical robot for long-bone fracture alignment in the market,” said Abedin-Nasab, a biomedical engineering professor.
Dr. Cheng Zhu and his research partner from the School of Earth & Environment, Dr. Charles McGlynn, are working together to build a strong, inflatable “shaker shield” intended to protect people from earthquakes and flash floods. Using their I-Corps award, they interviewed more than 200 potential customers and have a patent pending for their innovation, developed from aircraft evacuation slide technology.
Through I-Corps, they attended the Earthquake Countermeasures Technology Exhibition in Yokohama, Japan; conducted site visits at emergency response centers in St. Louis and on the West Coast; and visited with private sector professionals responsible for skyscrapers with seismic protection systems.
“The program provided us with a great opportunity to interview a large variety of potential customers and develop our business model,” said Zhu, a civil and environmental engineering professor.