MBA students at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business research cutting-edge technologies from the U.S. federal lab system in a course called Fed Tech, part of the UMD-led DC I-Corps program. Students who participate in this prestigious entrepreneurship program work under the instruction of entrepreneurs, regional investors and instructors with the primary goal of identifying and penetrating potential markets for a new technology.
Ben Solomon, an adjunct professor at Smith and CEO of Hyperion Technologies, leads the DC I-Corps Fed Tech program at Smith and other local business schools in Washington, D.C. The program is sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and operates on a national level with approximately 100 labs in the federal system and colleges across the country.
Commercialization of technology invented at federal labs in the U.S. has been a priority for President Obama. In 2011, he issued a Presidential Memorandum on accelerating technology transfer and commercialization of federal research in support of high-growth businesses.
The seven-week DC I-Corps Fed Tech course is offered at Smith each fall and spring semester and there are typically teams of three to four students per technology. The students meet once a week and have pitch sessions, but the majority of work is done independently. Solomon leads the course with other professors on campus and he also brings in local entrepreneurs to mentor the students. “It’s a village effort,” he says. “Student teams help each other out and we hold networking events outside of class. We have a close-knit community -- I’m still in touch with many of the students who have taken the course.”
Solomon acknowledges the course has a big time commitment and a heavy workload. He conducts interviews with prospective students and says that they need to be highly motivated to succeed in the program. DC I-Corps Fed Tech is open to full-time and part-time MBA students at Smith and PhD students across campus. “Entrepreneurs are the best fit for the program – students who really want to start a company,” says Solomon. The program has been especially popular with part-time MBA students and five teams have gone on to form companies that have collaborated with the lab they worked with during the class.
The students work directly with a technology transfer program team at a federal lab to identify potential customers and commercialization opportunities for their assigned technology. Students are required to conduct phone interviews with at least 50 potential customers during the project. These interviews help narrow down the most viable options for the commercialization efforts. Many times there are very different and unexpected paths for a particular technology.
“In our partnership with the University of Maryland, the Smith School students have worked diligently to understand the product-market fit of our patented technologies,” says Michael Schroeder, director at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD) Technology Transfer Office. “They have assisted the tech transfer office in gaining insights on how to commercialize our technology to industry.”
Solomon says one of his favorite projects was conducted last fall on a glass microsphere technology invented at the Naval Sea Systems Command (NSWC) Corona Naval Surface Warfare Center.
Two part-time MBA students at Smith – Matthew DeMay and Avi Edery – paired up with John Howard, a PhD candidate in material science at Maryland, for the glass microsphere technology project. They say that it was the most popular project of the semester and they were very excited to be selected to be part of that particular team.
Howard describes the technology: “It’s glass foam – the result of carefully melting and cooling hollow glass spheres. You end up with a lightweight material that can withstand significant force.”
After an initial call with the inventors at NSWC Corona, the team was excited about the far-reaching set of capabilities for the technology. It’s strong like steel, but it’s very light and can withstand a lot of force. Underwater use was a clear first thought along with safety equipment, automotive/armored vehicles and foam manufacturers.
Next, it was time to start chasing leads to get their 50 customer interviews. DeMay says it’s a challenge to learn how to approach cold-calling people. They had to look at specific technical problems and also more broad-reaching problems. They developed different sets of questions based on customer segment. “In the automotive industry, we looked at industry organizations (such as the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, or IIHS) and companies that worked with multiple manufacturers,” says DeMay, who is an engineer at Northrop Grumman. “Car bumpers and side impact panels using this technology could better absorb energy in the event of an accident.”
At the end of the seven weeks, they presented their findings as their final class deliverable. The team was so enthusiastic with the results that they joined together and licensed the technology and formed the company Microsphere Material Solutions, LLC. DeMay and Edery are still finishing up MBAs at Smith and already have full-time jobs. Howard will be working on his PhD for a while longer. For now, Microsphere Material Solutions, LLC will be a side business for them but the impact the DC I-Corps had on them will remain front and center.
“The DC I-Corps Fed Tech program provides a structured introduction into what it means to be an entrepreneur and helps foster some of the needed skills through real-world experience,” says Howard. “After completing the program I now have a much stronger sense of how to most efficiently and effectively begin a new venture.”
DeMay agrees, “The DC I-Corps Fed Tech program is a great opportunity to gain real experience and learn what it takes to be entrepreneur. As an engineer, it’s given me the experience and understanding about how to approach a start-up opportunity, not by focusing on the technology, but on how to build and develop the value propositions for customers and how to search for and identify the correct customers. These skills are invaluable for any person desiring to start their own business or tackle a start-up opportunity.”
What about students who aren’t sure if they want to be an entrepreneur? This course may help them too. DeMay says, “The DC I-Corps Fed Tech program is also a great experience for those who aren’t quite sure about whether they’d want to start their own business or develop a start-up of their own. Experiences gained through the DC I-Corps Fed Tech program will be eye-opening for anyone who participates.”
For details about experiential learning opportunities in the Smith MBA program, visit www.rhsmith.umd.edu/mba.
- Alissa Arford, Office of Marketing Communications