UTSA Innovation and Commercialization Help Researchers Get Ideas to Market In Challenging Times

By Iris Gonzalez
Stanton F. McHardy is UTSA's 2019 Innovator of the Year. Image courtesy UTSA.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) Office of Innovation and Commercialization (OCI) kept a tight schedule meeting with researchers interested in developing an idea for the market.

OCI is busier than ever working virtually with UTSA faculty on technology transfers, commercialization, and connecting scientists to newly available federal funding resources.

UTSA’s program provides intellectual property management and licensing, proof-of-concept development, new venture incubation, and entrepreneurial training that can accelerate the transition of intellectual property from the university to industry, OCI director Christine Burke explained.

Their work now includes a new focus—helping researchers launch a company in an economically fraught era buffeted by a global virus.

“We’re focused on helping innovators incorporate resilience into everything they’re doing,” Burke said. “It’s a new environment in which researchers aren’t necessarily in the lab anymore, so we’re encouraging them to think about pivoting to other prospects to continue innovation.”

Since the pandemic-related work-from-home restrictions began in March, UTSA has also transitioned its local version of a federal innovation program to an online platform.

“Now, more than ever, we need our research community to not only address the disease itself, but to also keep the economic engine surging forward with new ideas, new technologies, nascent startups, and industry collaborations,” said Dr. Bernard Arulanandam, UTSA vice president for research, economic development, and knowledge enterprise. “UTSA is providing the necessary tools to help our entrepreneurial scientists, students and staff succeed.”

UTSA’s I-Corps cohort moves online

The National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps or I-Corps program is a federally funded accelerator program designed to help researchers learn about entrepreneurship and pathways to commercialize an invention.

UTSA launched its local I-Corps training to help faculty members and students understand what it takes to apply successfully for the federal I-Corps program. Researchers may apply to UTSA’s local I-Corps program to win a $50,000 award and a spot in the program.

The last UTSA cohort ran in November with typical in-person mentoring sessions. The current I-Corps cohort is conducted virtually and runs from April 13 to May 11.

Eight teams will be testing their business models over the next few weeks in areas like mental health management, traffic safety, therapeutics development, wound care, and more, Burke said. The current group includes student and faculty-based teams, as well as one UT Health San Antonio team and two non-UTSA teams.

OCI has been leveraging its network of entrepreneurs-in-residence to “connect researchers with entrepreneurs to form new companies,” Burke said. Ralph Johnston is one of the entrepreneurs mentoring the teams. 

“We work with the teams as they undertake their customer discovery process,” Johnston said. “Researchers may think their innovative idea addresses one need, when, in fact, customer and partner interviews point to another. That may not be readily apparent until you adapt that idea for the market.”

OCI also advises aspiring entrepreneurs on how to apply for federal funding resources, including some newly available solicitations for targeted Coronavirus research.

Researchers can apply for COVID-19 federal funding

The pandemic has changed “business as usual” for scientists overnight.

Under normal circumstances, UTSA advises its faculty to apply to the Federal Government’s early-stage funding for which innovators do not need to give up equity in exchange. There is about $2.5 billion annual set aside for the U.S. Small Business Innovation Research Program, also known as SBIR, and the Small Business Technology Transfer program, or STTR.

These two initiatives are the largest source of federally funded early-stage, high-risk funding for research-driven startup companies. SBIR and STTR solicitations call for innovators to develop specific products with commercial merit and provide the incentive to profit from its commercialization. The federal solicitations detail specific needs for federal government research and development (R&D)

Read more: 7 Tips on How to Win Non-Diluting Federal SBIR, STTR Grants

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a wave of funding opportunities are available for researchers working on how to combat this disease. Various government agencies, companies, and foundations have announced non-dilutive funding opportunities for R&D that addresses the novel Coronavirus.

STTR funding helped Leaptran, a startup spun out of UTSA, hire experts needed for its R&D efforts. Leaptran helps facilities manage increased demands for energy by integrating building energy management with emerging technologies. Burke and other UTSA advisors who worked with Leaptran think the newly available Coronavirus federal funding could support new UTSA commercialization efforts.

“Federal seed programs can help a founder fund new hires and de-risk the transition from an emerging company to a fully-fledged one,” Burke said.

UTSA is encouraging researchers to apply to applicable COVID-19 rapid response programs such as the NIH Funding Opportunities Specific to COVID-19 and the ones listed here

“Researchers are, by profession, explorers of the unknown and uncertain,” Burke said. “Supporting their work is more important than ever.”

Featured image is of Stanton F. McHardy, UTSA’s 2019 Innovator of the Year. Image courtesy UTSA.

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