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Commercialization fellows help bring innovation to market

After completing high school in Côte d’Ivoire, the West African nation where he grew up, Yehou Michel Davy Gnopo, M.S. ’18, Ph.D. ’20, took a gap period to construct roads throughout West Africa.

“The story was always the same – we would stay in a town or village for two to four weeks and during that time attend funerals for five to six kids under the age of five,” he said. “Up to that point, I never had an interest in the pharmaceutical industry. Later, when I went back to school, I discovered that the infectious diseases killing these kids could be prevented, or even eradicated with appropriate vaccines.”

Leveraging guidance from Cornell Engineering’s Ph.D. Commercialization Fellowship program, Gnopo is endeavoring to build a pharmaceutical business in Africa based on a mucosally delivered vaccine system, administered inside the cheek via cotton swab. He wants to be part of the development of African pharma, which he envisions as a self-sufficient industry responding to the continent’s specific health care needs and relieving Africans from reliance on western or Chinese pharmaceutical companies.

The Commercialization Fellowship, which wrapped up its fifth cohort in December 2020, introduces engineers to the process of turning their academic research into businesses that solve real-world problems. During a fully funded summer and semester, fellows work one-on-one with a mentor, complete National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (I-Corps) Teams training and collaborate with a team of Johnson MBA students to create a business strategy.

“Before applying to the program, I lacked both practical entrepreneurship experience and fundamental business knowledge. I think most engineering graduate students find themselves in this boat,” said Gnopo, who earned his Ph.D. in chemical engineering.

Fellows learn about intellectual property, marketing, product development, fundraising and other skills from entrepreneurship experts. Gnopo’s favorite part of the program was working with MBA students.

“While the fellowship does a great job closing the business knowledge gap before the MBAs join the fray, nothing beats having a dedicated team of business students forming a plan for my venture,” he said.

Because the fellowship is fully funded, fellows are able to focus entirely on commercializing their innovations. Hedan Bai, a mechanical and aerospace engineering doctoral student, used the experience to work toward commercialization of stretchable sensors that are incorporated into garments and can be used to measure athletes’ movement and force, technology she developed with Organic Robotics Corporation, a Cornell startup that recently took top prize at the NFL 1st and Future Competition.

The I-Corps Teams experience, an intensive national training program through which academics explore commercialization opportunities for their research with an emphasis on the customer discovery process, was the most valuable component of the fellowship, Bai said.

There, she and her teammates became a “dream team,” she said. “While performing customer discovery, we discovered some real opportunities and market insights to pursue the commercialization of this technology.”

Another 2020 fellow, mechanical engineering doctoral student Jane Shin, cited the program’s highly individualized mentorship as an “enormous help” in crafting the direction to take in applying her tech to solve real-world problems. Shin is exploring using her intelligent sensor path planning algorithm as a solution for decision making in autonomous driving trucks. Fellowship mentors are entrepreneurship experts in industry and academia.

The 2020 Commercialization Fellowship cohort presented their final business plans on December 10, 2020 to a panel of entrepreneurial leaders from the region including: Frank DeCosta, partner, Finnegan Henderson; Marnie LaVigne, president and CEO, Launch NY; Chris Lee, chairman and CEO, Huxley Medical; Eric Young, partner and co-founder, Canaan Partners; and Todd Zion, co-founder, president, and CEO of Akston Biosciences Corporation.

Applications for the 2021 Commercialization Fellowship are open through February 22, 2021.

Casey Verderosa is a writer for the Center for Regional Economic Advancement.

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Abby Butler