Engineering Research Team Chosen for NSF I-Corps Program

Richard Coffman
Photos by University Relations

Richard Coffman

The National Science Foundation recently announced that a University of Arkansas research team was selected to participate in the national Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program.

The team — Richard Coffman, principal investigator and associate professor of civil engineering; Sean Salazar, entrepreneurial lead and doctoral student in civil engineering; and Jeff Barnes, industry mentor and vice-president of precision agriculture at Greenway Equipment — will receive a $50,000 grant to support travel related to customer discovery and to participate in the intensive seven-week curriculum.

The team will explore the commercial potential of a patent-pending invention called the Soil Observation Laser Absorption Spectrometer, which they designed to remotely measure real-time properties of soils critical to agriculture and earth-construction projects. The invention uses non-destructive optical technology that has the potential to provide useful and rapid soil information, such as index and nutrient properties, moisture content and mineralogy.


Sean Salazar

Coffman, Salazar and Barnes will participate in the South Node cohort in Nashville, along with 21 other teams selected from around the United States. As part of the program, the team will travel to meet with potential customers in the United States, Canada and Europe, conducting 100 customer-discovery interviews over a seven-week period.

According to the National Science Foundation website, the NSF I-Corps program prepares scientists and engineers to extend their research focus beyond the university laboratory and accelerates the economic and societal benefits of NSF-funded, basic-research projects that are ready to move toward commercialization. Program grantees learn to identify valuable product opportunities that can emerge from academic research and gain skills in entrepreneurship through training in customer discovery and guidance from established entrepreneurs.

"NSF I-Corps is a prestigious program, and this is a great honor for Rick's team and the university," said Dan Sui, vice chancellor for research and innovation. "Giving farmers the ability to remotely monitor and measure soil properties in real time is a huge contribution to agriculture, and the same could be said for highway departments and contractors who need to know how their berms and soil banks are performing. Overall, this is another example of how research at the University of Arkansas is improving our world."

Upon completion of the I-Corps program, the research team will apply for additional funding from the Gap Fund. A subset of the Chancellor's Fund, the Gap Fund provides support for University of Arkansas researchers trying to launch start-up companies based on their discoveries or inventions. The Chancellor's Fund was made possible by a $23.7 million gift from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation. To receive support from the Gap Fund, researchers must first complete the national I-Corps grogram.

Contacts

Richard Coffman, associate professor
Department of Civil Engineering
479-575-8767, rick@uark.ed

Matt McGowan, science and research communications officer
University Relations
479-575-4246, dmcgowa@uark.edu

Sean Salazar, doctoral student
Department of Civil Engineering
479-575-2693, ssalazar@uark.edu

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