In early 2018, Meriah Grove was an innovator in search of an idea.
The undergraduate advertising major from Atlanta had already launched her own nonprofit while in high school, and now she was chasing a new entrepreneurial dream.
Meanwhile, across campus, David Balinsky was completing his doctorate in veterinary medicine, and in his head was an idea to employ aerial drones in service of animal health. He just needed some help to transform his idea into reality.
Both students found the pathways they needed, thanks to UGA’s I-Corps program.
I-Corps is the National Science Foundation’s seed funding program for commercial innovation. Brought to UGA in 2017, the program helps innovators with STEM-related ideas determine if those ideas have real commercial potential. UGA’s five-year, $500,000 grant allows it to provide up to 30 teams each year with an introduction to the startup world and funding for early-stage customer-discovery work.
I-Corps adds another mechanism to UGA’s well-stocked toolbox to help fledgling inventors and entrepreneurs move their dreams to market. From entrepreneurial education efforts in multiple UGA colleges to the Office of Research’s successful Innovation Gateway program (which administers I-Corps), there is a university-wide commitment to innovation at UGA.
“Our goal is simply to help UGA faculty and students move their ideas to market, in whatever form that may take,” says Derek Eberhart, director of Innovation Gateway. “It’s right there in our name—we are a gateway, and there are many different ways you can walk through that door.”
Grove and her team started with an existing UGA patent for an indestructible golf tee and eventually shifted their idea to lightweight, durable tent stakes. Balinsky took his drone concept to a campus hackathon and was then invited to join the I-Corps program.
The university’s repertoire of entrepreneurial tools can be applied to a range of technology and business ideas at just about any point of the development life cycle.
“We help people answer, ‘Is this worth my time?’” says Ian Biggs, director of UGA’s startup program. “We help them understand what’s wanted in the business world. It’s not about ‘debasing’ research by making it about money; it’s about taking ideas and making them available for the rest of the world.”
Professor Jason Locklin, director of UGA’s New Materials Institute, has worked repeatedly with Innovation Gateway to supply new technologies from his polymer research lab for others to develop.
“My strengths are in developing new technologies, not scaling up, marketing or other things that are associated with developing a startup company,” Locklin says. “That’s not my primary passion. But I’m happy to hand off our initial, patented discoveries to someone else who will move the technology to market. If someone can take those ideas and turn them into a commercial success, I’m happy to help.”
Innovation Gateway is also a conduit for industry. This not only means matching up companies with UGA technologies, but also fostering partnerships. The hackathon in which Balinsky participated was sponsored by Boehringer Ingelheim, one of the largest animal health companies in the world, in an arrangement brokered through Innovation Gateway.
The results speak for themselves: More than 700 products derived from UGA inventions have made it to market, with 50 of those coming in fiscal year 2017 alone. For a decade, UGA has ranked in the Top 10 of all U.S. universities for licensing deals, and for four years it’s been among the Top 5 for moving products to the marketplace. The Innovation Gateway startup “pipeline”—companies and projects in active development—now numbers about 130 projects (up from only 40 in 2015), and on the licensing side Innovation Gateway executes more than 150 options and licenses every year.
“There is so much creative, innovative potential among our researchers and students at UGA. Innovation Gateway’s job is to help channel this energy in productive directions and hopefully contribute to economic development locally, regionally and even nationally,” says Vice President for Research David Lee. “There are big ideas all over this university. We want to develop those ideas and put them to work.”
In addition to operating the UGA Idea Accelerator and Summer Launch Program, the UGA Entrepreneurship Program—based in the Terry College of Business but serving the entire university—works with colleges and schools to hold “Shark Tank”-style startup competitions. The College of Engineering provides its own steady supply of inventions and ideas through its senior capstone program.
“Ideas come from all corners of the university,” says Bob Pinckney, director of the Entrepreneurship Program. “You’ve got support for entrepreneurship at the highest levels of UGA leadership. Innovation Gateway is providing support for researchers—faculty and grad students—who are commercializing their research, while the Entrepreneurship Program focuses on students who may or may not be utilizing university research. The programs complement each other very well.”
In January 2018, President Jere W. Morehead appointed a task force to investigate the prospect of creating an “innovation district” that would connect faculty, students and industry in a common space devoted to innovation and entrepreneurship. The task force’s official report strongly backed the creation of such a district.
“We believe an innovation district will facilitate the interdisciplinary collaboration that is so often at the heart of entrepreneurial success stories,” says Morehead. “This effort has the chance to be transformative for UGA and will be a significant driver of economic development in our state. I’m excited to watch its impact take shape.”