U-Michigan to lead $15M Great Lakes region innovation Hub

August 25, 2021
Contact: Kate McAlpine kmca@umich.edu,
Nick Gallo ngallo@umich.edu

Jeremy Minty, a 2013 Ph.D. graduate of Michigan Engineering and co-founder of Ecovia Renewables, holds up a sample of the company's AzuraGel product in 2018. Minty participated in NSF's I-Corps program. Ecovia is developing a compostable biopolymer cosmetics. One of its uses could be in compostable diapers. Photo: Evan Dougherty/Michigan Engineering Communications & Marketing

In an effort to nurture a regional innovation ecosystem and move more discoveries from the research lab to the real world, the National Science Foundation has established a Great Lakes Innovation Corps Hub that’s led by the University of Michigan and involves 11 universities in eight states.

The $15 million hub is one of three across the country that NSF announced today as it continues to evolve the I-Corps program it launched a decade ago. I-Corps trains scientists and engineers to carry their promising ideas and technologies beyond the university and into the marketplace to benefit society.

Niklas Krantz, a team member of Hyfi, a water data management service provider founded by a University of Michigan professor who took part in NSF's I-Corps program, sets up a water level sensor in the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge in Saginaw, Michigan. Photo: Robert Coelius/Michigan Engineering, Communications & Marketing

U-M’s Center for Entrepreneurship was one of the first nodes to host I-Corps in 2012, and it has served in various leadership capacities over the course of the program. In the Great Lakes Hub, U-M now collaborates with Purdue University, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the University of Minnesota, the University of Toledo, Iowa State University, Michigan Technological University, Missouri University of Science and Technology, the University of Akron, the University of Chicago, and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

“The Great Lakes region is home to many of the world’s leading research institutions, and many of our nation’s critical industries. Our goal with this I-Corps hub is to leverage this intellectual depth to create a lasting economic impact on the region,” said Alec D. Gallimore, the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering, the Richard F. and Eleanor A. Towner Professor, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, and a professor of aerospace engineering.

“We’ll do this by creating new businesses, by keeping established companies globally competitive and on the leading edge of technology, and by developing talent that not only has technical and cultural expertise, but also an entrepreneurial mindset.”

Team members of Hyfi, a water data management service provider, set up a sensor in the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge in Saginaw, Michigan in July. Co-founded by Branko Kerkez, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of Michigan, Hyfi gives city managers and insurance providers instant access to data about rising water levels. Photo: Robert Coelius/Michigan Engineering, Communications & Marketing

The impact of I-Corps

Over the past four years, an NSF I-Corps node led by U-M has introduced the entrepreneurial mindset to more than 3,000 scientists and engineers across the country and it has helped teams assess the commercial potential of nearly 1,000 technologies.

The new hub has set a goal of training 2,350 teams in the next five years, and sending an additional 220 teams to a more in-depth national NSF I-Corps program.
In this way, I-Corps is helping to fill what Jonathan Fay, executive director of the U-M Center for Entrepreneurship, calls the “widening gap” between the cutting edge research being done at universities and the development work of industry.

“U.S. universities are set up to reward scientific breakthroughs, but not necessarily the hard work of turning that discovery into social or economic impact,” Fay said. “On the industry side, investing in long range R&D is expensive with uncertain payoffs. This has led to a shift in industry away from research and toward development.

Nina Lin, an associate professor of chemical engineering and biomedical engineering at the University of Michigan, is a co-founder of Ecovia Renewables, which is creating bio-based, compostable alternatives to widely-used petroleum-based materials. She and her team previously participated in the NSF I-Corps program. Photo: Joseph Xu, Michigan Engineering Communications & Marketing

“What I-Corps does is fill that gap by changing both the mode of thinking and the social networks of the academic community so we can maximize the benefits of publicly funded research by finding the right place within industry for a new breakthrough to take hold.”

In coastal cities, entrepreneurship and innovation often thrive organically because the sheer number of investors and innovators operating in close proximity lead to an abundance of opportunities to collaborate and pathways for developing research. The Great Lakes hub aims to connect people at a large scale to increase the “effective density” of the Midwest’s innovation ecosystem.

A proven track record of success

Each university in the hub already has a successful I-Corps program, and the new model will make it easier for them to network and learn from one another. Former teams include:

  • S3D at U-M, which has patented printheads capable of printing circuits, switches, antennae, and sensors onto new and existing surfaces with complex and curved geometries at less than 20 micron. It enables in-vehicle sensing that can be printed onto any surface such as seats, steering wheels, and glass.
  • Adipo Therapeutics, an obesity treatment startup founded by an I-Corps team out of Purdue University. The company is developing a polymer-based nanoparticulate drug delivery system designed to convert fat cells that store energy into fat cells that burn it. Adipo Therapeutics has already secured additional grants and $1 million in private funding.
  • NovoClade, out of the University of Minnesota, is developing chemical-free mosquito-control solutions that are effective, yet don’t pose an additional burden on the environment. The team said that the I-Corps program helped them understand the market from the point of view of the customer.
  • Anemone, developed by a University of Illinois student, is a mental health crisis app that allows users to create a customized crisis plan and share it with friends, family, first responders, and mental health professionals.