Tech receives $300,000 grant to train researchers in Innovation Corps program

Tennessee Tech is now a member of the National Science Foundation’s National Innovation Network. The University received a NSF grant for nearly $300,000 to establish Tech as a training site for part of the Innovation Corps program. The grant will be awarded over three years.

The I-Corps program was established to help researchers transition their ideas from technological developments to the marketplace and learn how to evaluate their discoveries for commercial potential.

“At Tennessee Tech, we are really good at being technical, but this program will help students think about the social impact of what they are doing and how they can help people,” said Stephen Canfield, mechanical engineering professor and lead investigator for Tech’s I-Corps program. “Our goal in pursing this program is the benefits that it will bring to our students.”

NSF’s network consists of two types of establishments to help academics think more like businessmen: nodes and sites. A node is a formal, intensive training facility, where the sites are more localized. They offer similar training, but on a more manageable scale.

The principle focus of the program will be training students to determine if mass markets could use the technologies the students are developing. During training, participants are required to identify and communicate with customers to gather data to make their technologies better.

“If the whole point is to help a customer, why wouldn’t you talk to them while you’re doing your work?” said Canfield.

In addition to developing specialized technologies, the program also allows students to reach larger audiences with their developments. With Tech joining the National Innovation Network, faculty and students will be presented with more academic opportunities.

“If I had to summarize the benefits of this program, they would be money, access and credibility,” said Canfield. “We will have access to all the information at the nodes, meet more NSF benchmarks for funding, and get more recognition.”

Program participants are trained in teams usually consisting of a researcher or professor, graduate students, and a business mentor. These teams will work toward developments in one of four areas: research and technical projects, STEM learning initiatives, Oak Ridge technologies and regional industry.

Canfield said he wants to make the program available to both graduate and undergraduate students.

“ We are reaching out to a broader audience,” said Canfield. “The idea is to get a lot more students and faculty in the training.”

After completing the program, a student should be able to tell if their scientific and technological developments, or products, have business potential. If they do, the program has supports in place to help students take their product to the next level. Some supports include NSF aid for follow-up developments and connections to potential investors.

The goal for the program at Tech is to have 30 trained teams and 5-10 product launches at the end of each year.

“At Tech, there is a lot of push to build an innovation ecosystem. This program adds a big piece to the puzzle,” said Canfield. “The key is to have greater social impact from the research that we are currently doing.”

In addition to Canfield, the core team of investigators for the I-Corps project at Tech includes Curtis Armstrong, chairperson of decision sciences and management; Sally Pardue, STEM Center director; Ismail Fidan, professor of manufacturing and engineering technology; Michael Aikens, RODP marketing director; Jeff Brown, executive director of the Biz Foundry; and Harry Ingle, director of the College of Engineering Student Success Center.