Research News

SUNY ZAP! helps researchers think like entrepreneurs

Illustrated concept of innovation, coming up with an idea.

Participants in SUNY ZAP! learned to challenge their assumptions, look beyond academia for market information and talk to potential users in person.

By SUE WUETCHER

Published September 4, 2018

headshot of Natesh Parashurama
“Through the SUNY ZAP! program we learned several aspects of how pharmaceutical companies, including Genentech and Celgene, handle drug metabolic and hepatotoxicity studies.”
Natesh Parashurama, assistant professor
Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering

A UB research team working in the field of liver tissue generation was one of eight teams of SUNY scientists and engineers who learned how to think like entrepreneurs at the recent SUNY ZAP! training program.

SUNY ZAP! is designed for scientists and engineers who want to move their research from the lab to the marketplace.

It was presented by the SUNY Research Foundation and the University of California, Los Angeles, in collaboration with the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps’ (I-Corps) Innovation Node-Los Angeles.

“SUNY ZAP! is a platform for researchers and inventors to form entrepreneurial teams, focus on the needs of customers, learn from market realities and validate business strategy,” says said Heather Hage, vice president for industry and external affairs for the SUNY Research Foundation.

“We are thrilled to be collaborating with the best-in-class instructors of IN-LA to develop entrepreneurial talent and grow the New York state innovation economy.”

Natesh Parashurama, assistant professor in the UB Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, who attended SUNY ZAP! with PhD student Ogechi Ogoke, says the program enabled them to develop “an entrepreneurial mindset by encouraging us to meet with potential customers, analyze our strategy, network with academic entrepreneurs throughout the SUNY system, and obtain further training in entrepreneurship.”

The two-week SUNY ZAP! program introduced participants to the lean startup I-Corps methodology, a special, accelerated version of Stanford University’s Lean LaunchPad course that is being adopted by a growing number of universities and built into federal funding agency programs.

Discussion and exercises focused on several questions: What is the invention? Who is it for? Why should we care? Participants learned to challenge their assumptions, look beyond academia for market information, and talk to potential users in person. The teams used these skills to create hypotheses and draft business plans for their startups.

Parashurama and Ogoke’s startup, Livandala, is based on technologies for liver generation that, Parashurama says, “are taking a completely different approach. We believe this can be a commercially viable product based on our market analysis.”

The technology uses human pluripotent stem cells — master cells able to make cells from the three primary layers of cells in the embryo from which all tissues and organs develop — and the mechanisms associated with development of functional liver tissue to generate functional liver tissue inside (in vivo) the patient, as well as in the culture dish (ex vivo) for applications in cell therapy and drug discovery.

One of the researchers’ goals, Parashurama says, is to develop unique, stem cell-derived liver tissue that addresses the issues of hepatotoxicity — chemical-driven liver damage — and drug metabolism.

“Drug metabolism is a major function of the liver, and proceeding with, or halting, drug development can be based upon drug metabolism and hepatotoxicity,” he says. “Through the SUNY ZAP! program we learned several aspects of how pharmaceutical companies, including Genentech and Celgene, handle drug metabolic and hepatotoxicity studies.”

Parashurama says he and Ogoke —the research on the development of functional liver tissue is primarily Ogoke’s thesis work — were invited to participate in SUNY ZAP! after working with UB’s technology transfer office. “We thought it would be great to participate,” Parashurama says.

Other program participants agree.

“The most important thing we learned (from the program) was to get out of the building — that is, to gather information in person from similar businesses and potential customers,” says Ahmed Hussein, a doctoral candidate working on the University at Albany’s Internet of Lights team, which aims to improve wireless connectivity by transmitting data through light fixtures.

Adds Hussein’s team academic lead, Albany Assistant Professor Hany Elgala: “SUNY ZAP! taught us how to present our idea in a focused and non-technical way. We will keep working on this and look forward to moving on to BOOM.”

Graduates of SUNY ZAP! are eligible to enroll in the advanced BOOM course. Teams that complete BOOM qualify to apply for a $50,000 national I-Corps team grant.