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U-Md. innovators could boost Prince George's economy


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Published on: Wednesday, March 20, 2013

By Jason Ruiter

It’s not exactly Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak in the garage creating Apple, but the idea is essentially the same — turning a single product into its own company.

The National Science Foundation granted the University of Maryland just over a $1 million last month, broadening the Innovation Corps from Stanford University to national scope in hopes of making the nation’s best researchers also its best entrepreneurs.

Innovation Corps, I-Corps, brainchild of the NSF, has just added top-ranked schools like Columbia, Berkeley and the University of Michigan to be part of its original program at Stanford University. Maryland will be part of its “D.C. regional node” in a collaborative effort with George Washington University and Virginia Tech.

Ramani Duraiswami, an associate professor of computer science at Maryland was part of a team of three, consisting of a himself as professor, a graduate student in the department and an “industry mentor,” who in this case was a local entrepreneur.

They did what three-person teams will have to do this year for the seven-week course, Lean Launchpad.

“It was intense, but eye-opening,” Duraiswami said, who attempted to market 3-D headphones that could emulate the sounds a bullet or car makes passing by. “Lose all your inhibitions, go out and start talking to potential customers.”

The course, which began in 2011 at Stanford University and starts April 8, will have teams implement a business model individually tailored to their product. During the seven weeks, teams must obtain users, customers and orders. In 2011, 21 teams made 2,000 customer calls in 8 weeks.

Maryland teams from fields like cyber security, biotechnology and computer have already applied for this year’s program. With the money appropriated by the NSF grant, the university is hiring instructors who will provide tips and guidance to the teams during the course, teaching them how to patent and copyright their products.

Associate Vice President for Innovation and Entrepreneurship Dean Chang, who has worked with Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute, was studying for his Ph.D. in robotics at Stanford when he attempted to market a product with his colleagues more than 15 years ago. 

“Like any start-up, you learn a lot along the way,” he said. “It was a bunch of engineers studying haptics. … We didn’t have much business experience.”

Developing the product and assembling a team weren’t the issues, Chang said, without customer demand, a viable market, a product will flop.

The product grew into a company called Immersion, which is still around today.

“If you ever use a touchtone LG or Samsung (phone), if you ever press a button and feel the vibration, that’s the haptics,” Chang said.

A good portion of smart-phone users have been unwittingly touched by Chang’s work at Immersion. Chang and his colleagues tried surgical simulators, talked to representatives from BMW and Microsoft and other markets before finding that their best area — video games.

For every idea that is marketed successfully, there “are a dozen more companies that failed. More often than not, it’s because … they couldn’t generate customer demand,” Chang said.

David Iannucci, the economic development adviser to County Executive Rushern Baker, said,“The dream is that one idea in the laboratory becomes a company.”

Iannucci noted that programs like the Innovation and Entrepreneurship bring economic prosperity to Prince George’s County and the state. When researchers come up with products, they test their market value in business incubators, which can provide entrepreneurs with office space and business support.

“There’s a lot of data that says that incubators with universities are one of the strongest ways of growing your local economy,” Iannucci said, who added that there are 17 incubators in Maryland, including another in the county at Bowie State University. 

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