Turning consumer insights into new technology

Engineers are well versed at using the scientific method to solve research questions and develop new technologies. But can you use the scientific method to better understand people?

That’s the goal of the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps program, which aims to foster entrepreneurship and accelerate technology commercialization by guiding engineers through a series of courses to help them improve their business model and tailor their technologies to the marketplace.

David Rodriguez, Dev Chidambaram and Zachary Karmiol are Team Zerochrome

Associate Professor of Materials Science and Engineering Dev Chidambaram, center, with graduate students David Rodriguez, left, and Zachary Karmiol, right. Drawing on 16 years of research by Chidambaram, the team has developed a non-carcinogenic alternative to corrosion-resistant coating used on aircraft.

The College of Engineering participated in I-Corps for the first time this year through the Innovation Node-Los Angeles, a program headed by the University of Southern California and partially funded by the NSF. Six teams of faculty and students attended a program called ZAP!, which teaches engineers to perform customer research and field interviews.

“The ZAP! workshop was very hands-on and rigorous, and the instructor Viktor Brandtneris was extremely engaging and put the teams through several exercises that made them realize what it takes to bring a technology to market,” said Associate Dean of Engineering Indira Chatterjee, who organized the College’s involvement in the program.

The I-Corps program funnels teams through a series of intense workshop. Teams that successfully complete the first two courses, ZAP! and BOOM, are then invited to apply for a $50,000 NSF grant that includes additional training in market research and technology commercialization.

“The courses are designed to identify teams that have promising technologies of interest to NSF and also to identify entrepreneurs that are willing to go out and do the hard work of customer discovery,” said Andrea Belz, director of the Innovation Node – Los Angeles.

This year, two College of Engineering teams out of the six that participated in ZAP! were invited to participate in BOOM: FingerEye, led by electrical engineering professor Yantao Shen along with graduate students Yudong Luo and Medhi Rahimi; and Team Zerochrome, with materials engineering professor Dev Chidambaram and graduate students Zachary Karmiol and David Rodriguez.

Boom is a two-session, virtual course that increases the number of customer discovery interviews teams are expected to complete. They then bring their results back to the virtual classroom, where they learn from one another as they refine their business models.

“I am very happy with the outcome of the workshop in that two teams have made it successfully through the virtual workshop BOOM and qualify for IN-LA sponsorship when they apply for the $50,000 grant from NSF,” Chatterjee said. “We hope to continue participating in IN-LA with more teams this year.”

FingerEye is an adaptive E-Braille-based assistive technology that is capable of translating any text into Braille or audio in real time, whether in the digital realm or physically, on any surface. The technology will give blind and visually impaired users a portable means to read text anywhere and anytime.

“The IN-LA program really helped us to understand the business model and guided us to tailor our technologies to the marketplace," Shen said.  "We appreciate our College’s efforts to connect the program with us."

Team Zerochrome, second place winner of the graduate division of the Nevada Governor’s Cup in 2016 and a finalist in the Tri-State Governor’s Cup, has developed a technology to replace carcinogenic hexavalent chromium currently being used on aircraft. Hexavalent chromate conversion coatings have been used on aircraft for over 50 years to prevent corrosion to the underlying aluminum. However, it is highly carcinogenic. Over the past 16 years, Chidambaram has developed an alternative that is free of hexavalent chromium and provides the same level of protection as the chromium-based coating.

“This is a great program initiated by NSF,” Chidambaram said. “The College is highly supportive and promotes innovation and entrepreneurship among our students and faculty. These initiatives will further help the significant growth the College is experiencing in terms of research and productivity.”

Founded in 2014, the Innovation Node – Los Angeles collaborates with regional nodes around the nation, with additional nodes located in Georgia, Michigan, New York City, the San Francisco Bay Area, Texas and Washington, D.C.

“The NSF is really looking to transform our engineering schools, and we’re really excited that Reno is part of it,” Belz said.