UO research team wins top prize at NSF-sponsored I-Corps program

A University of Oregon research team led by chemistry professors Darren Johnson and Michael Haley recently won the top prize at a National Science Foundation-funded program designed to bring innovation out of the lab and into the private sector.

The UO’s SupraSensor team delivered a winning pitch on nitrate sensors for precision agriculture during the final presentation session and graduation for the Innovation-Corps (I-Corps) program held at Stanford University on May 23. And on July 18, the team took part in a showcase session featuring some of the most successful I-Corps teams at NSF headquarters in Arlington, Va.

“To have venture capitalists and entrepreneurs with billions of dollars in their pockets tell you your idea is bankable gives us a huge push,” said Calden Carroll, the UO team’s entrepreneurial lead. “We’re seeing firsthand that the scientific method can be applied to entrepreneurship.”

Carroll said I-Corps judges credited the UO team for its energy, flexibility and “intellectual honesty.” Team SupraSensor includes Bruce Branchaud, professor emeritus of chemistry, and August Sick, the “entrepreneur in residence” from the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute (ONAMI). The team beat out 23 other groups from across the country, winning an Uncle Sam I-Corps print signed by venture capitalists and NSF program directors that comprised the teaching team.

A relatively new private-public program open to all NSF grantees, I-Corps is designed to turn research teams like SupraSensor into start-ups. In a recent interview on NBC’s “Squawk Box,” I-Corps booster Steve Blank discussed the program and the difficulty many scientists have in thinking like entrepreneurs.

“It’s a large step for a scientist,” said Blank, a well-known serial entrepreneur whose Lean LaunchPad approach to innovation is central to the I-Corps program. “Often the difference between an introvert and an extrovert for scientists is whether they’re looking at their own shoes or your shoes. Our goal for training them is to actually teach them how to look customers in the eye by the time they leave this class.”

Members of the UO team say I-Corps hammered home the message of focusing on customers above technology. In examining the commercial readiness of their concept – a nitrate sensing probe designed to maximize agricultural productivity, optimize fertilizer usage and minimize environmental impacts – the SupraSensor team worked with entrepreneurs and educators to learn valuable lessons about scalability, how to appeal to customers and other key business concepts.

“This particular technology may not even be what goes to market in the end,” Carroll said. “Rather than being an exercise in trying to fund our technology, we started to think about how best to develop a product around a customer need.”

I-Corps funding runs through September for the SupraSensor team. The team received additional support from ONAMI and has been working with the UO’s Technology Transfer Services. The group has patented its technology and established the company SupraSensor Technologies.

The team is applying for additional grants and developing a prototype of the nitrate sensor, which promises to fulfill a need for real-time monitoring of fertilizer application in environmentally sustainable precision agriculture. Members of the team stressed the fact that they are committed to keeping the company in Oregon.

“This award validates the SupraSensor team’s hard work and offers a glimpse of the successes that lie ahead for this Oregon start-up,” said Kimberly Andrews Espy, vice president for research and innovation. “This entrepreneurial technology will help secure a sustainable future by limiting the wasteful over-application of nitrate fertilizers. The team is part of a proud tradition of UO research that couples cutting edge fundamental work with translational application to develop the tools for tomorrow.”