Grant helps move technology from research to market

Elizabeth Polsdofer

Shivani Garg is a graduate student seeking her doctorate in molecular, cellular and developmental biology who is interested in more than what any laboratory vial can contain.

Along with Basil Nikolau, the deputy director for the Center of Biorenewable Chemicals, and Dr. Peter Keeling, the innovation director for CBiRC, Garg is the recipient for the Innovation Corps Award, whose focus is helping to get science out of the lab to assess its readiness to transition into the marketplace.

The I-Corps Award is sponsored by the National Science Foundation and gives money to the recipients to explore the commercial potential of emerging technology concepts. The recipients attend a workshop and two-month, Web-based course at Stanford Business School designed to help them explore the transition from a lab coat to a business suit.

“It’s mainly focused on helping technology come out of the lab and begin to go to the market,” Garg said on the I-Corps Award. “But then there’s this transition phase where you need to explore the market, the customers, and this is what the course is about, helping people in transitioning the technology.”

Garg is not alone in her quest to transition science into the marketplace. In order to apply for the I-Corps Award, applicants need to have an entrepreneurial lead, a principal investigator and a mentor. Garg is the entrepreneurial lead, a typical role for graduate students and post-doctoral researchers who apply for the I-Corps Award.

Nikolau is the principal investigator, a role taken on by the major adviser of the entrepreneurial lead. Keeling is the mentor of the team.

“The general idea is to try and stimulate more early-stage company formation in U.S. universities,” Keeling said. “It ultimately ties back to job creation in high-technology jobs.”

CBiRC holds a similar class that is based in technology-led entrepreneurship, which Keeling hopes will gain invaluable insights from having participants in the I-Corps Award.

“Before you go out in the market with your product, the grant provides us with guidance from experienced entrepreneurs, conceptual tools and some money to go and talk to the customers and test our prototypes and see what customer reactions are,” Garg said. “If we get positive feedback, we can make the decision of going ahead with exploring a startup venture.”

Garg is focusing on creating bio-based chemical intermediates that will help make biorenewable plastics and fabrics. More specifically, Garg is creating monomers in the lab, or single chemical units that — when repeated together in a long chain — become the building blocks to everyday materials such as plastics and fabrics.

“We’re at the stage where we have monomers in the labs at a small scale, and before we scale up the process and think about making lots of it so it can be sold, we need to know if it is highly valued by the customers,” Garg said. “That’s why we are going through this process of talking to customers and finding out if this kind of business is going to have any kind of value or usefulness to anyone.”

Keeling assisted Garg in marketing the technology.

“The technology at the moment is a generalizable framework that can apply itself to different sectors in the market, and we’re trying to identify the most viable of those sectors,” Keeling said. 

At the end of the sponsorship period, the team will need to make a decision on whether or not to follow through and create a startup company, OmegaChem. So far, the team said the outlook appears sunny.

“It’s absolutely crazy when you get out of the lab and start talking to people in the marketplace,” Garg said. “There are surprises.”