On Aug. 27, 11 Fermilab innovators completed the second cohort of the Entrepreneurship and Commercialization Practicum, sponsored by the Office of Partnerships and Technology Transfer. The practicum is designed as a lighter version of DOE’s Energy I-Corps. Like Energy I-Corps, the practicum gives researchers the framework for industry engagement and market awareness. This summer, the entire series was conducted virtually over the course of eight weeks.
Each of the cohort’s three teams focused on a single technology, exploring the path to commercialization with an emphasis on customer discovery. Participants drew on facilitated discussions and lectures and even conducted industry interviews. While the design of the course is to call on scientists, engineers and technicians to learn what problems matter to potential customers, this year presented the new yet by now familiar challenge of remote collaboration. If they weren’t already, the students quickly became experts in Zoom conferencing and file synchronization software, too.
This year’s instructors included experts from the University of Chicago’s Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation as well as Fermilab graduates of the Energy I-Corps program. Many instructors provided guidance and suggestions weekly.
“We want to understand how our technology relates to real problems that real people have,” said Fermilab engineering physicist Min Jeong Kim, noting her key takeaways from the lecturers.
At the end of the course, the groups presented their value propositions, ideas for key partners and technology benefits from a customer perspective to a panel of commercialization experts. After the more formal presentation, students were able to engage in a conversation with panelists.
Andrew Dalesandro, a member of the team focused on cryocooler technology, emphasized that his group had to pivot their approach through the course of customer discovery to minimize risk and increase opportunity. One of Andrew’s teammates, Ram Dhuley, reflected that the lessons of the practicum extended beyond technical expertise:
“We realized that entrepreneurship can be very fun, although it takes much more to succeed in this field than just having a great idea,” he said. “The program is extremely valuable for the lab’s scientists and engineers who want to learn to effectively communicate their highly technical work to the layperson.”
The panelists said that, for them, the practicum served as the first step in entrepreneurship training. They also appreciated the importance of balancing advancement of technology with the customer’s bottom line.
“The practicum seemed to provide the teams the exact experiences that ideation-stage companies need, including engagement with customers to validate, refute or pivot their concept to help better assure product-market fit,” said Cole Johnson, guest panelist and vice president of Deep Tech at P33, a nonprofit organization that helps promote Chicago as a hub for tech companies. “Getting out of the lab to speak with customers is critical to understanding the problems of potential customers and designing an appropriate solution. It was great to see that each team had made considerable progress in understanding the fit of their technology within its envisioned market by speaking with potential customers.”
Mark Bollinger, DOE Fermi Site Office deputy manager and member of the Fermilab Community Advisory Board, served as a member of the panel and offered an insider’s perspective on the importance of the practicum as a step in creating a commercialization culture.
“Fermilab’s long culture of sharing and open science is still evident today making the challenge of creating a commercialization program more daunting,” Bollinger said, “However, the thoughts and ideas being generated at the lab every day are so fantastic they deserve to be protected for the benefit of Fermilab, DOE and the United States.”
The students also discussed their future plans in entrepreneurship, ranging from continued development of their new technology to serving as ambassadors to technology transfer.
“When I see a colleague with an idea or possible product, I could more readily encourage them in pursing communication,” said Craig Drennan, Fermilab engineer.
In her final remarks to the students, lecturers and panelists, OPTT Head Cherri Schmidt acknowledged the achievements of the new entrepreneurs:
“You succeeded at communicating very complex concepts and technologies to a nontechnical audience, and that was my primary objective,” she said. “The fact that our five panelists could all ask insightful questions meant that you succeeded in your communication tasks, and hopefully we’ll have some follow-up conversations on these ideas with our new friends amongst the panel members.”
The panelists were equally appreciative of the practicum.
“It is great to see Fermilab scientists and engineers understand the value of talking directly to potential customers to understand the value proposition of their innovations,” said guest panelist Britta McKenna, CEO and chief innovation officer at Four Hawks LLC. “There is so much potential for Fermilab to develop game-changing products and services for the larger community.”
Graduates of Entrepreneurship and Commercialization Practicum Cohort 2
Min Jeong Kim
Don Athula Wickremasinghe
Steve Lehmann, Polsky Center at University of Chicago
Chuck Vallurupalli, Polsky Center at University of Chicago
Mark Bollinger, DOE Fermi Site Office
Cole Johnson, P33 Chicago
Britta Wilk McKenna, Four Hawks LLC
Ray Stachowiak, American Shared Hospital Services
Steve Waszkowiak, Sterling Engineering
Laura Rogas is the program administrator for the Office of Partnerships and Technology Transfer and IARC at Fermilab.