Engineering Team Trains for Success at National I-Corps

Min Zou, professor of mechanical engineering.
Photo by Russell Cothren

Min Zou, professor of mechanical engineering.

U of A researchers — and the discoveries they make — can change our world for the better. But taking inventions from the laboratory to the marketplace, where industries and government can deliver new technology to consumers, is a daunting challenge. That's where industry mentorship, university support and the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps come in. U of A I-Corps teams participating in the regional and national programs are supported by the Division of Research and Innovation and the Division of Economic Development.

Min Zou, professor of engineering, and graduate student Sujan Ghosh formed a partnership to explore the opportunity to commercialize Zou's patent-pending innovation in solid lubricant coating. Their team, CoatingEngineering, connected with an industry mentor Ty Keller, manager of product innovation at Hytrol Conveyor Company in Jonesboro, Arkansas.

I-Corps Site Program

Ghosh and Zou saw the potential in solid lubricant coating to improve material handling and reduce costs for businesses and were ready to take the next step. Their team was accepted into the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (NSF I-Corps) Site at the U of A. The NSF I-Corps program strives to "reduce the time and risk associated with translating promising ideas and technologies from the laboratory to the marketplace."

Working with Ed Pohl, professor and department head in industrial engineering; Cynthia Sides, director of innovation and industry partnerships; Bob Beitle, professor in chemical engineering; and Sarah Goforth, executive director of the Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, CoatingEngineering refined its business focus and began investigating opportunities in the marketplace. Pohl stated that "our NSF I-Corps site is designed to assist early stage teams with their customer discovery process, and we are extremely excited to see this team continue on to the National I-Corps program, which will help them continue to mature the commercialization of their technology."

Keller, a 2005 U of A graduate in mechanical engineering, has engaged the team in discussions with industry, offered advice and supported the team's grants and proposals. "Not only is this exciting to me from a discovery standpoint, Hytrol sees the business potential in this technology. It could be a win-win for them by shrinking the distance from lab to market."

On to the National I-Corps Program

The team's potential for commercial implementation and success qualified them for the prestigious NSF National I-Corps program, hosted by the I-Corps South Node, along with teams from institutions such as MIT, UC Berkeley and University of Texas at Austin. During the intensive, seven-week program, Ghosh and Zou completed about 100 interviews with industry representatives. What they learned is shaping the future of CoatingEngineering.

"We received feedback that we weren't expecting at first," Ghosh said. "Businesses were less concerned about cost and more about what the benefits are to society at large."

Ghosh and Zou heard from many companies that they were looking for technology that was green and sustainable, that both reduces noise and energy consumption.

"This has been so valuable because meeting with industry and customer segments helps explains where the challenges and opportunities are," Zou said. "The earlier we can learn from different markets, the better we can tailor our technology. Professors and researchers read journals for the latest developments in our field, but industry engagement helps us meet the challenges of the marketplace."

Along with the success of CoatingEngineering, the university's efforts to promote innovation commercialization are yielding very promising results, which has been highlighted as essential to the future success of the university by Chancellor Steinmetz in his "2020: Focus on the Future" white papers.

Weston Waldo, venture development program manager of U of A Technology Ventures, works closely with inventions and inventors, like Zou, to liaise Technology Ventures with university spinoff companies and entrepreneurial teams considering leveraging university innovations and empowers them to take advantage of the many resources that are available in Northwest Arkansas and beyond. "CoatingEngineering is the 'dream team' because they have a faculty member in a STEM field, a graduate student/research expert learning the ropes of entrepreneurship and a knowledgeable industry mentor who is a senior leader with domain expertise matched to the innovation," Waldo said.

National Impact of the National I-Corps Program

NSF has completed their annual report to Congress on the National I-Corps program where NSF reported that 50 percent of National I-Corps team participants through Summer 2020 have gone on to form a company, and these companies have raised $760 million.

For those that are interested in learning more about I-Corps, please contact one of the following people:


Andy Albertson, senior director of communications
University Relations


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