Program for UB research teams with life sciences technology or idea for marketplace

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Photo by Nancy J. Parisi.

Published February 17, 2021

Martin Casstevens.
“The program is suited for early-stage projects looking to assess a commercial opportunity, university researchers exploring grant funding, and companies looking to commercialize new technologies.”
Martin Casstevens

UB's I-Corps@NCATS program is ideal for a new technology or partially validated idea in the life sciences including therapeutics, biologics, diagnostics, devices, and health IT/services.

It is common for innovative ideas to fail at startup because there was no actual need for the product or service. The National Science Foundation (NSF) created the I-Corps program to provide researchers and innovators skills to recognize compelling translational opportunities. A key part of the process is speaking directly with end users to confirm that there is a definite need for the innovation. Once need has been confirmed, participating I-Corps teams are introduced to determining market size, possible business models, regulatory requirements, and possible next steps. Over the past three years, the University at Buffalo NSF I-Corps Site program engaged close to 75 teams in all areas of study. Several teams have gone on to create startups, receive grant funding, create intellectual property, and participate in a myriad of other programs at UB to support further commercialization.

UB recently joined a network of Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA) hubs across the country to offer a very similar program funded by the National Institutes of Health specifically targeting researchers and innovators in the life sciences. The NCATS I-Corps program is a collaboration among participating CTSAs, led by the University of Alabama. This new UB program, a collaboration between UB’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) and Business and Entrepreneur Partnerships (BEP), will offer a five-week virtual training program — the I-Corps@NCATS Short Course — starting on April 15 and running through May 20. Applications are being accepted now.

Through this course, researchers with a technology innovation in any STEM-BioMed field will learn how to explore product-market fit, talk directly to end users/customers, gain insight from experienced business leaders, and build a business case for translation of their science. The I-Corps program is a gateway to other UB programs designed to commercialize innovations, receive additional grant funding, and network with a wide array of experts.

The schedule for the I-Corps@NCATS Short Course is:

Orientation 12-4 p.m. Thursday, April 15  
Kickoff 12-4 p.m. Thursday, April 22  
Virtual office hours Scheduled with each team    
Mid-point 12-4 p.m. Thursday, May 6  
Virtual office hours
Scheduled with each team    
Finale 12-4 p.m. Thursday, May 20  

The I-Corps@NCATS Short Course is open to:

  • UB faculty members (and one or more of faculty members’ postdocs or students)
  • UB students or groups typically working with a UB faculty member
  • Groups closely affiliated with a UB organization or program
  • Teams of UB staff, clinicians, faculty, nurses and/or or students with biomedical innovations or ideas

The I-Corps@NCATS Short Course will be led by national I-Corps faculty member and trainer Julie Collins, MS, and supported by members of the UB BEP and CTSI teams. Collins is a leader in the field of entrepreneurial coaching and an expert in funding for small businesses. She has participated on more than 20 NSF and NIH national training programs and instructed more than 500 companies or early stage projects.

Improving health by bringing new innovations from research labs to market

According to UB I-Corps Program Director Martin Casstevens, "the program is suited for early-stage projects looking to assess a commercial opportunity; university researchers that are in the process of or have filed an invention disclosure or are exploring Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grant funding; and companies looking to commercialize new technologies." The program is also ideal for a new technology or partially validated idea in the life sciences including therapeutics, biologics, diagnostics, devices, health IT, and services.

Additional details related to team composition and commitment can be found on the UB I-Corps website.

Supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) — National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), the I-Corps@NCATS program is based upon the successful NSF I-Corps and I-Corps at NIH Entrepreneurial Training Program, which combines business model training with a customer discovery process. The program strives to improve the health of communities by speeding up the process of moving new discoveries from our research labs into new treatments and cures for patients.

This goal is accomplished by helping academic researchers better understand the process for how to bring a new innovation to market and how to accelerate the process while reducing the risk that an innovation will fail.

The I-Corps experience: First-hand perspectives

UB Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences Department of Urology residents Tyler Maiers, MD and Kyle Waisanen, MD, are previous successful I-Corps participants. Their business, Urogami, Inc., is focused on developing solutions to problems regularly encountered both inside and outside the operating room. “Urogami, Inc. acts as a holding company for the intellectual property we develop, with the goal of licensing the technology to major players in the medical device community,” Maiers says.

Tyler Maiers, MD.

Tyler Maiers, MD

“The concept of reaching out to potential customers and end users to frame the problem before spending significant time on a solution really resonated with me.”

Waisanen and Maiers say they view themselves as physicians first, and had no real experience as entrepreneurs.

“Tyler and I came together after realizing we both just wanted to create device related solutions for current urologic healthcare problems,” Waisanen says. “Being an entrepreneur only came after we found that our work was well received across many of the different interdisciplinary teams.”

“We also both view ourselves as innovators and ‘idea guys,’ but it has really taken time for us to embrace the entrepreneurship role, since this was completely new for us,” Maiers says. “I think that really says a lot about how valuable the I-Corps experience can be, especially for those learning the entrepreneurship ropes for the first time.”

The duo recognized gaps in their knowledge base, and learned that the I-Corps program could help them systematically overcome the roadblocks in their path.

“The importance of taking a step back and just listening to the needs of other physicians, nurses, and patients has really helped us focus our efforts on problems worth solving,” Maiers says.    

Waisanen adds that “another one of the most important lessons I learned was that sometimes, as entrepreneurs, we are too focused in on solving a specific problem to realize how large of a market truly exists.”

Kyle Waisanen, MD.

Kyle Waisanen, MD

“Learning to step back and really see that some solutions can and should be applied across multiple markets has helped with the recent success in device design.”

Since completing the program, Maiers and Waisanen have accumulated roughly 100 customer engagements and have met with CEOs and other personnel of medical device companies. They have stayed in touch with the mentors and contacts they made during the program, and keep them updated on their progress in order to demonstrate what a valuable contribution these contacts made on their journey.

“We definitely found their experience and willingness to help were instrumental for Tyler and myself to continue to succeed in the start-up community,” Waisanen explains.

“Anyone even thinking about the I-Corps program should dive right in,” Maiers adds. “I-Corps gave us the tools and confidence needed to pursue our dreams in urologic device design. Regardless of what your entrepreneurial dream is, I believe I-Corps can offer the structure and resources needed to make it happen.”