I-Corps@NCATS Short Course challenged teams to ‘go deeper’

icorps dual display.

Published June 16, 2021

“The transformation in attendees’ understanding of how to market their innovations during the course was remarkable.”
Timothy F. Murphy.
“Our first NCATS cohort was a great opportunity for teams to learn from one another’s challenges/growth during the program.”
Martin Casstevens.

Teams of life science/health-related researchers and prospective entrepreneurs engaged potential customers, built a business case for their technology innovations, explored product-market fit, and learned from an array of experienced mentors over a five-week virtual course. At the final session held May 20, seven teams presented their findings and prepared for next steps. Ultimately, the goal is to improve health by bringing a new innovation from the research labs to market with the I-Corps@NCATS Short Course contributing an important step in that process.

The I-Corps@NCATS Short Course is a collaboration among participating Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA) hubs, led by the University of Alabama via funding from the NIH National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS). The University at Buffalo program was co-sponsored by UB’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) and Business and Entrepreneur Partnerships (BEP).

UB I-Corps Program Director Martin Casstevens says the central themes of I-Corps “are to address issues through direct engagement with end users, purchasers/customers, and influencers using best practices in customer discovery — a.k.a., ‘voice of the customer.’” These issues include customer needs, market sizing, customer segmentation, choosing the best business model, and commercial success.

“Seven very different teams entered the cohort and each is moving forward in a unique way,” says Casstevens. “Established startup companies gained new customer perspectives and even pivoted their businesses. Some teams are motivated to establish new companies and many teams are aggressively seeking additional financial support of their R&D efforts — some as academics, others as startup companies.”

From his perspective as a researcher who has worked in an academic environment for his entire career, CTSI Director Timothy F. Murphy, MD, said that the course was an eye-opening experience.

“In order to commercialize a novel healthcare intervention such as a new drug or device, it is critical to look at it from a different point of view beyond the science and the efficacy of the intervention,” Murphy says. “Participants in the course learned how to view their innovation from the point of view of end users, customers, buyers, influencers and people who are important in determining the success or failure of commercializing a new product. It is a different way of thinking for those of us who spend much of our time doing research and writing grants and manuscripts.”

In addition, explains Murphy, all involved learned a vitally important lesson: “I was surprised to learn that the most common reason for small businesses to fail is because there is no market for their products. This reality emphasizes the importance of the principles that the I-Corps@NCATS experience so effectively teaches.”

The participant experience

I-Corps@NCATS Short Course participant Matt Smith, Managing Partner, Perfect Planet, took advantage of the opportunity to explore his team’s concept, Podia Therapeutics. Podia’s technology is utilizing a specific waveform of e-stimulation in a warm water foot bath.

“We are a team of scientists, researchers, clinicians, and engineers with no idea of what customer discovery is — or at least that was true until five weeks ago,” Smith explained during his presentation. “We had an idea of combining electric stimulation in a warm water footbath in an attempt to help people suffering from foot wounds heal faster. And what do you know? It actually worked.”

Smith said the idea was stagnant for a decade, “floundering and mostly sitting on the bookshelf.” Then came I-Corps@NCATS, and the opportunity to take the concept to new heights.

“We were excited to find out about the program and even more excited to learn that we had been accepted,” Smith said. “We had the support of amazing mentors who challenged us to go deeper and explore channels that we had just discovered … What we learned was nothing short of amazing.”

Smith said the team “discovered a handful of new potential beachheads” for the device.

“We realized now that our research has really just begun moving forward,” he said, adding, “We are so much better prepared to talk to potential customers and partners and really dive deep into where our greatest market potential lies.”

The Luminescence team, featuring Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences students Ellen Lutnick and Thomas Listopadzki, aims to use blue light photodynamic therapy in decreasing prosthetic joint infection.

“While the rate of prosthetic infection in Buffalo is much lower than the national average,” Lutnick explained, “the result of even a single infection is devastating to patients and providers, resulting in multiple returns to the operating room, severe patient outcomes in terms of quality of life and risk of mortality and massive costs to the healthcare system.”

“Over the course of the five weeks we learned some important lessons,” said Listopadzki during the team’s presentation. “We got a better idea of how it works to introduce a new product into the medical market. There are a lot of moving parts, and it is not something that happens in just one year.”

Listopadzki added that course teachings have led to some important changes.

“We altered our customer segments,” he said. “Our next steps are going to be to continue to reach out to the connections that we formed.”

The Self-Powered Smart Shoes team — M. Amin Karami, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Seyyed M. Salili, PhD, artificial intelligence scientist and entrepreneur — developed a product that brings together engineering and healthcare/life sciences: a self-powered sensing device that generates a high-resolution signal for gait and every footstep. It could help professional athletes and amateurs achieve personal training goals, correct their postures and activities, and avoid injuries.

“During this program, we interviewed 30 people,” said Salili during the presentation. “Most of them were in-person.”

Karami explained that the interviews led to modifications in their customer focus. The team found that rather than focusing on individuals with standing-heavy jobs, a more fruitful focus would be people who play sports, especially soccer or basketball, and who are prone to injuring their ACL.

“We went to a soccer club,” Karami said. “And [discovered that the] main mechanism right now for preventing these injuries is warming up properly and adequately. So, if we really want to sell a product, we should take advantage of the existing methods … The focus changed from, ‘a device that's going to assess everything and give one specific advice’ to 'wearing a shoe insole which tells one if he/she has warmed up enough,’ therefore reducing the risk of injuries.”

Lessons learned, and what’s next

Casstevens believes that “a thorough knowledge of customers and end users permits an academic researcher to write a more compelling research proposal and ultimately position the technology to be more successfully commercialized.” The seven participating teams, then, are poised for future success.

“The transformation in attendees’ understanding of how to market their innovations during the course was remarkable,” Murphy says. “The expert teaching team guided participant teams in defining their market, allowing them to explore different business models. Most teams made significant changes in their approach based on what they learned through the course and from their dozens of customer interviews. They have the opportunity to stay in touch to benefit from the mentoring of the UB BEP group.”

“While life science-based teams are routinely invited to participate in the National Science Foundation (NSF) I-Corps cohorts, our first NCATS cohort — supported by NIH and geared directly to life science technologies — was a great opportunity for teams to learn from one another’s challenges/growth during the program,” Casstevens says. “Approximately three NSF cohorts are planned each year, and the NCATS program will be run once annually unless there is additional demand.”

The next NSF cohort will run mid-July to early August. Cohort dates, additional details, and a link to application can be found here.

Interested entrepreneurs are invited to schedule a conversation with Casstevens (mkc@buffalo.edu) to explore participation in future cohorts.