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Student inventors to view their tech through business lens

Commercialization Fellows
Top from left, Steve Gal, T.J. Wallin, Hugh Bullen, Juan Guzman, Brad Treat. Bottom from left: Ken Rother, Kayla Nguyen, Arna Pálsdóttir, Kai Weng (Catherine) Wong, Tom Schryver.

Six engineering doctoral students are stepping out from behind the lab bench to closely examine the market potential for their research technologies.

The students have been selected as the second cohort of Commercialization Fellows, part of a fellowship launched in 2016 in which students spend a fully funded summer and semester engaging with business mentors, Johnson MBAs and industry professionals as they learn about the commercialization process and explore the business side of innovations created in their labs.

The students and technologies are:

Hugh Bullen, protected anodes for rechargeable batteries – A fluorinated polymer layer is used to enhance the cycling performance of high-capacity, lithium-metal batteries used in industries such as transportation and alternative energy generation. The coating is applied to a battery’s anode and this fluoride-rich interphase layer helps to control reactions leading to a boost in the battery’s performance.

Juan Guzman, Capro-X bioprocess – A unique bioprocess that can increase the value of bio-ethanol production by circumventing energy-demanding distillation. The fermentation broth from bio-ethanol production can be fed to the bioprocess to produce a high-value bio-oil that can be used as an animal feed supplement, replace chemicals sourced from palm oil, and be refined to manufacture plastics and pharmaceuticals.

Kayla Nguyen, electron microscopy pixel array detector – A four-dimensional detector used in scanning transmission electron microscopy that can produce an unprecedented amount of information about the sample that is collected at each scan position, including thickness, strains, tilts, rotations, polarity, atomic fields, long-range electromagnetic fields and orbital angular momentum.

Arna Palsdottir, supercritical fluid extraction of lithium – A new method for extracting lithium from brine sources, including traditional brines and geothermal wastewaters, that aims to replace the solar evaporation portion of the process to significantly decrease the time and environmental impact of producing lithium.

Thomas Wallin, PMP stereolithography build window – A low-cost window substrate for commercial stereolithography 3-D printers that allows for the printing of polydimethylsiloxane (PMP), a silicone material. The window paves the way for new applications for 3-D-printed soft devices that require springs, hinges and soft robotics.

Catherine Wong, rapid-prototyping toolkit for robot controllers – A software toolkit allowing users to forgo manual designing and coding of robot controllers and instead use basic English vocal commands that the software converts into robot commands. The kit programs controllers that follow instructions without the errors and failures typically associated with coding.

At the end of the fellowship program, each student will have a better idea of the commercial viability of their technology, but more importantly, each will have developed business skills and an entrepreneurial mindset that will enhance their marketability as job seekers and startup founders.

Wallin says he applied to the program because he wants to build an industry network and focus on entrepreneurship, something that is difficult to do while publishing research. “Regardless of the short-term outcome, acquiring these skills will help in my future endeavors. For example, my research yielded multiple other 3-D-printing formulations that have yet to be disclosed that might be commercially relevant.”

Nguyen got a taste of the commercial side of innovation after she helped negotiate a licensing deal for her lab’s pixel array detector. But she says that process made her realize how unprepared she is to market a product. She hopes to explore opportunities for her technology and learn more about starting her own business. “Seeing startups struggle and fail has made me worrisome about the entire process. As a fellow, I hope to get the opportunity to meet people who manage successful companies and learn directly from them.”

Palsdottir hopes to determine the commercial viability of her lithium extraction method, but her long-term goal is to help others bring environmental and sustainable technologies to market. “Closing the gap between industry and academia is essential to quicker, faster and better innovation,” said Palsdottir, adding that she plans to use the fellowship to “develop my professional skillset and hone my ability to commercialize inventions to solve real-world problems.”

The students have already begun working with their mentors and their first formal meeting with the fellowship’s academic teaching team was held June 12.

Syl Kacapyr is public relations and content manager for the College of Engineering.

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Joe Schwartz