NSF I-Corps: Bringing Together Industry, Academia, and Entrepreneurship

Jessica McBride, Office of the Vice President for Research

When UConn alumnus Tim Myles finished his PhD in mechanical engineering in 2014, he knew he wanted to pursue a career in industry.

“I enjoyed the academic cycle of things—do research, publish papers, present at conferences, teach, repeat—but I felt like I could really contribute to society and even improve people’s lives by working in industry. It just seemed like the best fit,” Myles said.

At that time, Myles was a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Clean Energy Engineering in the lab of Dr. Radenka Maric. Maric was supportive of his decision to focus on industry, and she came to him with an offer. Instead of a postdoc in her lab, she wanted him to be a key player in a startup she and a business partner from industry had formed to commercialize one of Maric’s innovations called Reactive Spray Deposition Technology.

Maric and her business partner Claire Leonardi formed Health eSense to create a hand held, clinically accurate, non-invasive device to detect and monitor the status of chronic illnesses through analysis of exhaled breath. Thanks to a Phase I SBIR grant from the National Science Foundation, Maric and Leonardi had the funding to hire a senior engineer to serve as the scientific lead and move the technology forward.

The basis of the technology is an innovation made by Maric called RSDT, or Reactive Spray Deposition Technology. RSDT is a thin-film deposition process that overcomes many of the shortcomings of traditional vapor deposition techniques while yielding equal or better quality coatings at a lower cost. Before going through the I-Corps program, RSDT had primarily been used in the development of fuel cells, not for use as a medical device.

Myles and Maric credit the shift in focus to their participation in I-Corps, a program established by the National Science Foundation to provide academic researchers with seed funding and entrepreneurial training so that more university discoveries reach the market.

“We started the program with a strong focus on fuel cells and considered biosensors to be a side project,” explained Maric. “By getting out of the lab and talking to our potential customers, we discovered that the best path towards commercialization for our technology was actually the one we least expected. We had the ‘Aha’ moment that I-Corps enthusiasts promised us.”

They plan to focus their first prototype on diseases that are currently difficult to diagnose. Known as “silent diseases,” these conditions often go undetected. Using Maric’s RSDT film allows for small particle sizes that are able to measure concentrations of specific gases like ammonia in the breath that could signal liver disease. Unlike standard methods, Health eSense’s technology is less expensive, more efficient, and results are ready in between 10-20 seconds.

Since 2013, Maric, Myles and/or Leonardi have participated in four separate I-Corps programs—UConn’s site program called Accelerate UConn, the regional and national I-Corps programs at the New York City Regional Innovation Node, and SBIR “Beat the Odds” Bootcamp, which Myles described as “I-Corps lite.” Each round provided funding and educational programming from leading entrepreneurship experts using Steve Blank’s Lean Launchpad methodology.

According to Myles, they also required dedication and commitment to the process.

“The training is intense. It’s like a full-time job,” he said. “But in the end, the work paid off because we learned what business model would give us the best chances of success before spending any real time or money developing a technology for customers who didn’t exist. The time and effort are worth the knowledge you gain.”

Myles is happy with his decision not only to pursue a career in industry, but to be a key player in a startup.

“This experience is giving me the opportunity to develop something from beginning to end. It’s great to be involved with the whole process, not just a cog in the machine of a big company.”

Health eSense is continuing R&D at their headquarters at UConn’s Technology Incubation Program in Farmington where they benefit from a vibrant community of entrepreneurs and industry mentors and have access to investors and business services. The Health eSense team has applied for funding from the National Institutes of Health that they hope will allow them to pursue clinical trials.

Accelerate UConn is now accepting applications for the spring 2018 cohort. Apply today https://accelerate.uconn.edu/apply/

(Photo: Tim Myles using RSDT flame in the Center for Clean Energy Engineering lab/UConn Photo)