I-Corps Prepares Scientists for the Business World

Gabriel Popescu (at far right) and Phi Optics team members (from left) Tim Hoerr, Catalin Chiritescu, and Jed Taylor, pose during a seminar at Stanford with their “prototype” of a microscopy technology that Popescu’s company is developing.
Gabriel Popescu (at far right) and Phi Optics team members (from left) Tim Hoerr, Catalin Chiritescu, and Jed Taylor, pose during a seminar at Stanford with their “prototype” of a microscopy technology that Popescu’s company is developing.

Faculty members running a research group are often required to play many roles other than just that of being a good scientist, from fund-raiser to personnel manager to student counselor. More and more researchers are also adding the title of entrepreneur to their curriculum vitae, and some are using a government program to gain insight into business practices.

Faculty members running a research group are often required to play many roles other than just that of being a good scientist, from fund-raiser to personnel manager to student counselor. More and more researchers are also adding the title of entrepreneur to their curriculum vitae.

The list of Beckman Institute faculty members who have taken their discoveries out of the lab and into the business world is rapidly growing. Many of their startup companies are at the University of Illinois Research Park, in the EnterpriseWorks technology business incubator or as part of its iStart program for brand new ventures.

The goal at EnterpriseWorks is to grow successful businesses from startups that sprouted from novel technologies developed at Illinois. Cultivating entrepreneurs from scientists is a different challenge. 

Gabriel Popescu and Yi Lu are two of many Beckman Institute researchers who have discovered the trials of adding “founder of a startup company” to their CV.  Fortunately, their transition has been eased through a new and unique government program in which both have taken part. Popescu even testified before Congress recently on his experience.

Popescu and Lu were principal investigators for separate University of Illinois teams that participated in a National Science Foundation (NSF) sponsored program called Innovation Corps, or I-Corps.

The I-Corps program is designed to facilitate and speed up the translation of research to the marketplace through educational programs and activities that include real-life exposure to the world of a startup business. Popescu said he was not fully familiar with the realities of starting a business when he began the initial steps toward translating novel microscopy technologies developed in his Beckman lab into products ready for the marketplace.

“For me, personally, it’s a challenge,” Popescu said with a laugh. “Basically I’ve been in schools all my life as a student or faculty, with zero industry experience. On the other hand, challenges are good. Entrepreneurship is a completely different world. I talk about the same things, like the SLIM microscope, but from two different perspectives. I learned that the hard way during the program.

“Trying to explain the technology to an investor is totally different than trying to present the microscope to somebody in my area, so it is quite challenging. I’m not going to quit my day job, that’s for sure. I’m not going to be running the company but I think it’s important that faculty learn a little bit about what businesses are interested in and how they evaluate certain technologies.”

Smarter Tech Transfer

The I-Corps program has the general goal of broadening the impact of NSF research; topping the list of several hoped-for outcomes is the development of new startup businesses. It also serves as a feeder to the NSF Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs.

 The aim is to focus on NSF-funded research that the agency says shows “immediate potential for broader applicability and impact in the commercial world.” The I-Corps program includes two components: teams made up of a PI, an entrepreneurial lead, and a mentor, and University-based nodes that serve as hubs for the educational program. Popescu’s team, called Phi Optics, also included Dr. Catalin Chiritescu (Entrepreneurial Lead), Tim Hoerr (Business Mentor), and Research Park entrepreneur in residence (EIR) Jed Taylor.  

Much like the reality TV show Shark Tank, researchers and their teams “pitch” their discoveries and technologies to both a “teaching team” from I-Corps that includes highly successful investors, and to real-world potential investors. The goal, said Taylor, is to work out the bugs before investors start funding a startup to the tune of millions.

“One of the things it does is, it makes you fail faster,” Taylor said. “Instead of taking a lot of money and failing over two years, or finding out you are going in the wrong direction, it compresses that and you do it over three months.

“So you can make those adjustments quicker before you’ve taken on $2M in funding and then figure out, ‘oh we made a mistake.’ You take a little bit of money, figure that out quicker, make those adjustments, then start going in the right direction. What you are doing is validating your ideas up front and making the necessary changes beforehand.”

“The team goes through an assessment of how ready the technology is for the market, for commercialization, and basically it’s not required to have a company in place,” Popescu added. “But it happened that we did.”

Popescu’s company, also called Phi Optics, is built around his development of a novel class of light microscopy technologies that are fast, accurate, low-cost, and non-destructive to tissue samples since they don’t require staining or laboratory work.

Yi Lu’s company at Enterpriseworks is called GlucoSentient, Inc. (www.GlucoSentient.com). Its breakthrough tech-nology centers on modifying the personal glucose meter into a device for quantitatively and conveniently detecting other targets at a low cost. Lu was one of the first researchers to go through the I-Corps program.

“The biggest thing I learned was that, before developing a product that sounds great, go out and talk to customers to find out whether they really like it or not and what features they will like,” Lu said. “By finding out this information before developing products, we can avoid costly mistakes of spending lots of money and time building a product that few if any will buy. I would definitely recommend the program.”

Popescu was impressed enough by his experience with I-Corps that he was more than happy to accept an invitation to testify before a Congressional committee on the value of the program. The hearing, “Innovation Corps: A Review of a New National Science Foundation Program to Leverage Research Investments,” was held by the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology in Chicago July 16.

In his testimony Popescu said this of I-Corps: “Overall, the striking feature of the program is that it offers a ‘scientific’ approach to commercialization. Through interactions with potential customers, we have the opportunity to test certain hypotheses, e.g., what is the proper set of features for our product, how much should it cost, etc. This is precisely our approach in the laboratory, where, in order to understand a certain phenomenon, we perform experimental testing of various hypotheses.”

Turning Discovery into a Viable Product

Popescu is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Illinois and a full-time faculty member in the Bioimaging Science and Technology group. His Quantitative Light Imaging (QLI) Laboratory at Beckman works, as stated on their Web site, to develop “novel optical methods based on light scattering, interferometry and microscopy to quantify structure and dynamics of cells and tissues.”

The development by Popescu of a broadband interferometric technique known as Spatial Light Interference Microscopy (SLIM) as an add-on module to a commercial phase contrast microscope is a pillar of the startup. SLIM is a fast, sensitive method for stain-free imaging at multiple scales from 200 nm and up, making it an attractive alternative to other techniques.

“SLIM is the flagship of the technology,” Popescu said.

Translating those technology developments into something that could, for example, aid both researchers studying disease and clinicians treating them depends on turning prototypes into a viable product. 

In his testimony, Popescu said that “Our participation in the I-Corps program has made a tremendous impact in the potential for success of Phi Optics. With the knowledge gathered during the program and adjustments we brought to the business model,

we are now starting to seek seed investment.”

The swiftness of the translational impact for Popescu was evidenced by a first order for an alpha-prototype from a major life sciences company, and by Phi Optics playing host to a leading microscopy company interested in partnering with the company toward development of commercial products.

The I-Corps grant is $50,000. Teams in the program take part in educational seminars at one of the nodes and on Skype, and present proposals to teaching teams via Skype. Popescu said the grant was small compared to those he receives for his research work.

“It’s the smallest grant I ever had,” he said. “But it has a catalyst effect.”

Taylor expounded on the benefits of the I-Corps grants.

 “So NSF has invested about $2M in Gabi’s research, Taylor said. “That incremental amount of money that they invested through I-Corps, $40 or 50K, that little amount of money, just dramatically increases the chances of the $2M they invested turning into some commercial technology.”

As a professor, Popescu is used to seeing his students’ work. In the I-Corps program, he was forced to show his work, to teaching team member such as prominent “serial entrepreneur” Steve Blank. 

“Every week you had to go back and sit in front of Steve Blank and the investors and say, this is who I went out and talked to,” Popescu said. “You had to get up and post your slides and say this is who we went and talked to. So it forced you to get out of the lab and go do it.

“I learned a lot of things,” and he added with a smile, “I was put in a lot of uncomfortable situations, that I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t gotten out of the lab.”

One of those situations involved creating a less than state-of-the-art prototype during their workshop at the Stanford node.

“One of the suggestions by the teaching team, by Steve Blank, was ‘don’t be afraid to make a model or prototype of some sort’” Popescu said. “He gave an example of him selling computers. I think he put a brick in a box and gave it to somebody to look at.

“So the night before the presentation we went to a Wal-Mart in Palo Alto and we got a Styrofoam cooler and aluminum foil and made it look like a microscope. But inside we put an iPad with our movies of cells. We asked the teachers to come in and look at them and they were blown away.”

Popescu hopes his technologies not only prove to be commercially viable, but also make an impact. 

“In our case, hopefully it will turn into an instrument which improves healthcare and that everybody could benefit from,” he said.

This article is part of the Fall 2012 Synergy Issue, a publication of the Communications Office of the Beckman Institute.