From research to marketplace: the NSF challenges scientists to think entrepreneurially

Elevator pitchAll you get is 90-seconds to communicate your big idea and how it can change the world. That’s a tall order for anyone; it’s a unique challenge among academic scientists who tend to talk longer rather than shorter, and use technical terms rather than business ones. But turning science into business opportunities is a federal mandate for increasing US global competitiveness. The National Science Foundation (NSF) embraces this directive in many ways, from its Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program to the public-private partnership organization, Innovation Accelerator, which works with NSF-SBIR companies. Both programs are focused on commercializing innovations that originate in our great research universities. In November, 2011, the NSF and Innovation Accelerator co-hosted the first-ever elevator pitch competition for scientists from the nation’s Engineering Research Centers (ERCs).

The idea was to get scientists thinking about how to bring their technologies into the real world. John Pyrovolakis, founder of Innovation Accelerator, explains the competition origins: “ I knew this was something we had to do. Getting the best and brightest from the ERCs to be market facing, even for a few weeks, serves our mission so well that we couldn’t resist. Scientists need to be exposed to market drivers and business metrics in order to translate technologies to everyday use.”

About ERCs.  According to Deborah Jackson, ERC Program Director, “ERCs were established in response to feedback from industry indicating the need for engineering graduates who were better able to work and adapt to the rapidly changing real world. They wanted students to be able to work on a team towards a common goal, such as solving challenging technical problems or identifying that could be transferred to the marketplace.” There are 17 ERCs across the US. These interdisciplinary, industry-academic partnerships exist in schools such as Carnegie Mellon, Georgia Tech, MIT, and Stanford, among others.

The competition.  The ERC Elevator Pitch Competition was inaugurated as as a means to embed entrepreneurial thinking within the centers, a task that represents a cultural shift within academia where startup activity is usually not part of the tenure process. The competition featured undergraduates, Masters students, PhDs and post-docs all competing for the Innovation Accelerator-sponsored $5,000 prize. Though the contestants were all technology students, they had to speak in business terms, some of them for the first time.

The competition was organized by the student leadership council (SLC) of the Quality of Life Technology Center (QoLT) ERC, whose core partners are Carnegie Mellon and University of Pittsburgh. Portia Taylor, a Carnegie Mellon biomedical engineering PhD student and leader of the SLC team in charge of the event, describes the students’ goals: “We are trying to get technology students to think more entrepreneurially. We felt that running a competition would encourage the spirit of student entrepreneurship and give them some on-the-spot training. By engaging in the competition, students learn what it takes to bridge their gap from their research into the business world.”

Matt Lee, a CMU PhD student who competed in the competition appreciated the goal: “It gave students an opportunity to talk concisely and in a meaningful way about their research. Normally PhD students present their focus as a research problem. This competition focused on the market. So I got a chance to describe the research that I am doing and how it can translate into a product. And one that makes money. That’s new and that’s different.”

The actual pitches and photos can be seen at the ERC program site: pitch

Judging.  The students had a minute and a half and one slide to communicate their concept. Innovation Accelerator helped to recruit the panel of judges, which included several VCs, startup consultants, and Lesa Mitchell, Vice President of the Kauffman Foundation. Marco Rubin, Managing Partner from Exoventure and one of the judges, sees why the NSF has placed importance on commercialization: “The ERC Elevator Pitch competition gave scientists exposure to how market need drives disruptive technology. If you are focusing on commercialization, where better to start then at the very beginning – the elevator pitch!”

Another judge, Richard Fox of Astralis Group, a Florida-based firm which works to grow technology companies, cites the challenge of picking the right project in the first place: “Students were presenting projects that reflected the strengths and specialties of their ERCs. Since very few research projects successfully make it from funded research to a product that makes money, it is important to put the projects in the context of large commercial potential. If the elevator speech did not propose tens of millions of dollars of future annual revenues then it was not compelling.”

Winner Da-Tren ChouWinner.  Da-Tren Chou, a PhD student in Bioengineering from the University of Pittsburgh, won the competition. Da-Tren is with the ERC for Revolutionizing Metallic Biomaterials (North Carolina A&T University, in partnership with the University of Cincinnati and the University of Pittsburgh). Da-Tren’s research is in novel degradable metals for use in orthopedics and other clinical applications. Da-Tren’s new metallic alloy has many similarities to natural bone compared to stainless steel and titanium, but is also degradable and allows for new bone formation. Da-Tren’s elevator pitch was about creating patient-specific, customizable bone grafts. The benefits outlined in his pitch were reduced patient risk, increased clinical outcomes, and lower healthcare and hospital costs. Da-Tren found the competition valuable because: “It gave me a different perspective than a technical presentation. I gained a new perspective on the business side and startup companies. And that would be something that would seriously interest me in the future as I finish my PhD.”

Da-Tren’s winning pitch can be seen at

What this means.  The US needs more Da-Trens – researchers who cross the chasm from the lab to the marketplace by morphing basic research into products and services that can change the world. John Pyrovolakis talks about the importance of events like the elevator pitch competition: “The next frontier of innovation lies within our research universities, at the door of the federally-funded research labs. It’s important to bring those technologies to the forefront and to clear a path so that they can get to the marketplace. Innovation has to cross the bridge to everyday life to be meaningful.”

Historically, the NSF has been the spark that has ignited much of the innovation in the US. With programs like the ERC Elevator Pitch Competition, the NSF is rightfully elevating the role that entrepreneurship plays in our economy. Recognizing that the next generation of entrepreneurs will come from those that are in school today, the NSF is encouraging students to use their skills and research to go beyond the ivory tower to solve real-world problems. This effort entails training, collaboration and funding – and the guts to get up in front of a roomful of people and elevator pitch your idea!

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