Canek Fuentes-Hernandez, a Georgia Tech professor is feeling a little jet lagged these days. In addition to managing his research, the aspiring entrepreneur is meeting with 100 people in seven weeks across 9 time zones. He plans to learn why doctors and the medical industry are interested in high-speed optical shutters and which features would help them in their jobs.
Fuentes-Hernandez, a faculty member of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Georgia Tech, and his team, PhD candidate James Hsu and Professor Bernard Kippelen spent several years developing and designing an ultrafast optical shutter. Knowing there was an opportunity to commercialize and take this product to market, they, along with Georgia Tech VentureLab Principal and team mentor, Harold Solomon, applied for an Innovation Corps (I-Corps) grant. Supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), this prestigious grant was awarded to only twenty teams in July 2013. Each selected team is made up of an academic researcher, student entrepreneurs, and a business mentor.
Through this intensive workshop, Fuentes-Hernandez and his team will initially present their research and hypotheses about the potential market of this product. Over the weeks, they will hear from entrepreneurial educators and begin learning about business models. In between their presentations, Fuentes-Hernandez and his team are expected to “get out of the building”. By meeting and interviewing potential customers in person, they will gain a better understanding of the market’s needs. “We have learned that several shortcomings with current ultra-short pulse lasers create opportunities for our discovery to find a home in industry” explained James Hsu.
In the first day of interviews, they met with five people and learned they had to eliminate an entire customer segment and several hypotheses about their invention.
By the end of the program, they plan to have a better understanding of their customer needs, returning to their labs to repurpose the ultra-short shutter at the heart of their pulse laser. Their work will now be focused on a medical imaging device that uses this high speed shutter in order to replace X-rays with a completely harmless, visible spectrum medical imaging system.
Kippelen shared that while their project is still changing, the experience is already altering the way he teaches and views commercialization.
“Frontloading the focus on customer discovery is saving us valuable time” he said.
“I-Corps is a great example of what is possible when entrepreneurism is taught to all disciplines concluded Kippelen. “And I look forward to seeing other agencies offer similar programs.”
After eight weeks in the program, Fuentes-Hernandez and his team have:
- Met with more than 125 people
- Presented eighteen hypotheses, nine of which were proven
- Have discovered at least six industries where the laser does not suit the needs of the customer