Spring Grantmaking

Last week we announced the CSUPERB spring grant awards.*  We spend the largest percentage of our annual budget on spring grants – last week we sent $567,088 to CSU students and faculty all over California.  That total includes both our “major grant” (seed grant) programs and the faculty and student travel grant programs.

Last week I had Seth Godin’s mantra in my head, so it’s rewarding to see where the money is going. We’re sending CSU engineers, kinesiologists, and biologists worldwide to scientific and engineering conferences in San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, Stockholm and Beijing.

We’re funding collaborative faculty-student research projects in medicinal chemistry, computational modeling, synthetic biology and more.  Numerous PIs are planning on collecting next generation sequencing data sets, reflecting a sea-change in the way biological systems are characterized in CSU research laboratories these days. We’re funding joint ventures, including one between Dr. Jaqueline Padilla-Gamino, a new assistant professor at CSU Dominguez Hills, and the Catalina Sea Ranch. Together they are going to study temperature-tolerant strains of mussels that shellfish farmers can depend upon going forward. The joint venture also draws upon the expertise of faculty at CSU East Bay and CSU Long Beach. CSU Dominguez Hills student researchers will learn both biotechnology and aquaculture hands-on practices and skills along the way.  Drs. Katie Wilkinson, Susan Lambrecht and Cleber Ouverney won a Curriculum Development grant to work with departmental colleagues to overhaul San Jose State University’s (SJSU) introductory biology curriculum to better align with the Vision & Change Report. Roughly 900 SJSU students per year will be impacted by the new course and laboratory sequence.

Many thanks to the fifty or so CSU faculty we recruited to review proposals this spring. This spring’s five review panels were the most diverse we’ve ever seated. They patiently worked through the new CSYou online review system with us. The expected disciplinary culture differences played out in front of us (engineers like terse, cogent descriptions; biologists like much more detailed and elegant prose). But we are also seeing generational shifts in biotechnologies. New Investigators bring with them postdoctoral experience in using genome-wide, system-wide research and data management methods.

The Vision & Change report predicts many of these cross-disciplinary, fast-changing aspects of biological science.  It’s not easy; a couple of our first-time reviewers had a difficult time letting go of their disciplinary expertise and learning to take a “generalist view” of the diverse seed grant proposals CSUPERB considers. However, based on the reviews and proposals I read this spring, the CSU faculty are keeping up and even leading on many new education and research frontiers. There is no greater job than investing in the CSU’s students and faculty – I can’t wait to see what they do!


*For those of you waiting for CSU I-Corps decisions – be patient, we’re wrapping up interviews and administrative i-dotting and t-crossing this week.

    2016 CSU Biotech Symposium: January 7-9, Hyatt Regency Orange County

    “Put people on stage that your community can relate to, who are authentic, and who are already trusted by the people who will be paying [registration fees] to attend your event.”  – Brian Fanzo


    Brian Fanzo’s article reminded me of the Strategic Planning Council’s meeting on April 12th.  During the meeting we reviewed the post-symposium survey data that suggests the January 2015 annual symposium was a huge success.  With 97 (69%) of the faculty and 141 (36%) of the student participants reporting, nearly all of them would recommend the event to their peers.*

    Somehow we’ve figured out how to make this event a reflection of who we are as a community. We also involve a formidable roster of people “from the trenches” who tell compelling and authentic stories of what it’s like to work in the life science industry as researchers, product developers and entrepreneurs. Looking back at the symposium speakers these last eight years, I find a who’s who of California (and the nation’s) biotech leaders and their exciting technologies and companies. I also see New Investigators becoming well-funded PIs, department chairs and academic leaders.  The symposium is a “delivery device” for our strategic plans, but it’s also a powerful community building event & leadership academy!

    Opening Session Speakers at the 27th Annual CSU Biotechnology Symposium (left to right):   David W. Martin, M.D. (CEO, AvidBiotics), Rachel E. Haurwitz, Ph.D. (President and CEO, Caribou Biosciences, Inc.),  Karen Burg, Ph.D (Vice President for Research & Professor of Chemical Engineering, Kansas State University & AAAS–Lemelson Invention Ambassador), President Leslie Wong (San Francisco State University) & Susan Baxter (CSUPERB) An Adventure in Genome Engineering: From the Lab Bench to the Startup World –  A Tortuous Path of Entrepreneurship -

    Opening Session Speakers at the 27th Annual CSU Biotechnology Symposium (left to right): David W. Martin, M.D. (CEO, AvidBiotics), Rachel E. Haurwitz, Ph.D. (President and CEO, Caribou Biosciences, Inc.), Karen Burg, Ph.D (Vice President for Research & Professor of Chemical Engineering, Kansas State University & AAAS–Lemelson Invention Ambassador), President Leslie Wong (San Francisco State University) & Susan Baxter (CSUPERB).

    At the April SPC meeting we wrestled with the program budget for academic year 2015-2016.  The SPC faced yet again rising costs associated with the annual symposium.  It’s a huge event, attracting 646 participants this past January. The SPC knew it was going to cost ~$36,000 more to run a similar event in 2016.   Yet again we debated cutting out Thursday workshops, limiting room nights or raising registration rates.

    But Dean Rich Lapidus (Cal Poly Pomona) stopped us.  Pointing to the remarkable impact of the well-received event, he advocated we defend the “secret sauce” that makes the annual CSU symposium special.  As the lone true business person in the room (he’s Dean of the CPP College of Business Administration), we listen to him on marketing and budget matters.  Rich explained that by cutting a professional development workshop here or reducing networking opportunities there, we would undermine the event and effectively turn away our community.

    So the SPC decided we’ll produce another three-day event January 7-9, 2016, at the Hyatt Regency Orange County.  Mark your calendars and look for earlier-than-usual poster submission deadlines!

    Meanwhile, we wish Dean Lapidus and his family all the best.  He’s leaving the CSU to become the 11th President at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts. At the April meeting SPC members made many, many, many comments to him about the beautiful spring weather we were having in California. Despite the teasing, the SPC will miss Rich’s good counsel, his patience with our technical jargon and his business perspective very much. In true CSUPERB community-building spirit, he helped us learn how to use technology commercialization and CSU I-Corps as a bridge between science, engineering and business schools.  We hope another patient and pragmatic CSU business dean will step up to continue the momentum!**


    *96% (students) and 100% (faculty)

    **Nomination packages for new SPC Dean appointments are due in the CSUPERB Program office (pbranger@mail.sdsu.edu; 619-594-2822) Monday, May 11, 2015.

      Breaking Radio Silence with a New Strategic Plan

      It’s been a tough winter/spring in the CSUPERB program office. We faced month-long jury duty (yes, they can do that to 4-person state program teams!) and influenza outbreaks of at least three different varieties.

      Even though the wheels came off the blog here, we presented a new strategic plan to our Presidents’ Commission (they approved it) and after some edits the Chair, President Haynes, submitted that plan to Chancellor White for his approval. We ran our spring grant programs, closed the books on our 27th annual CSU Biotechnology Symposium, organized peer review meetings (involving a whole new Sharepoint-based review system – thanks to Tyson & the Sharepoint Gurus at the Chancellor’s Office!), and kicked off the second CSU I-Corps cohort. We submitted a proposal and found out we’ll have two new CSU STEM VISTA members joining our team in July (not that Shannon Palka, our current VISTA member is replaceable…) Last weekend we presented our AY15-16 annual operating plan and budget to the Strategic Planning Council (they struggled with it but we have something to present to the Presidents’ Commission). Wednesday we received applications for the Fall CSU I-Corps cohort.  Over the next month or so – I promise to report out on all this activity here at the blog.

      So – imagine my delight to receive notice this afternoon that Chancellor White approved our 2015-2018 Strategic Plan!  It is the culmination of a process we started last August at the summer Faculty Consensus Group meeting.  But more importantly it represents a tremendous amount of thought, analysis of survey data, input from faculty, students and administrators system-wide, interviews with partners and, yes, committee-based word-smithing and grammar checking.  I take the blame for all spaces between sentences.

      Now we have a strategic framework (or sand box, if you prefer) for the next three years. With the energy and devotion of the CSUPERB community and support from our administration, I know we can make the CSU biotechnology student learning experience an engaging and valuable one for all!  Many thanks to everyone, including Chancellor White, for your support.

        Melding Cultures

        We’re a week away from the 27th Annual CSU Biotechnology Symposium and I can guarantee you we’re not ready (yet)!  We’re in the “final details” stage. We’re finding typos and mistakes in our program (published online this year for the first time!), printing table signs and packing boxes to ship to Santa Clara.  But – we’re shutting down here for the New Year holiday and so I can’t help but be pensive.

        I find the best break in the action and – simultaneously – a way to keep in touch with the big picture during hectic times at work is to find time to read.  I usually read for a couple of hours in the morning, and again at the end of the day. The morning reads, especially, clear my mind for writing and the tens of emails I’ll compose in a given day at CSUPERB. I’m omnivorous (scientific journals, newspapers, books on higher education, blogs, nordic noir, etc.).  But 2014 definitely tilted my reading to electronic formats over hardcopy.  I also found myself leaning increasingly on Twitter and Feedly to find new, challenging, simply delightful, and kind-of-weird delightful stuff. This open access to global thought (and, yes, silliness) is a huge change from my early days as a scientist when the quality of your campus library often dictated whether you were working at the bleeding edge or reinventing wheels. What a change in culture.

        As the symposium takes flight, we’re also working on a new three-year strategic plan. We’re about 2/3 of the way through a planning process started at the August 2014 Faculty Consensus Group meeting.  Luckily I’m working with the Strategic Planning Council on this project.  I read something today that explained why our strategic planning retreat went so smoothly, “Participants need several years of regular meetings to build up enough experience with each other to recognize and appreciate the common motivation behind their different efforts. They need time to see that their own interests will be treated fairly, and that decisions will be made on the basis of objective evidence and the best possible solution to the problem, not to favor the priorities of one organization over another.”  This is a part of CSUPERB culture of which I am very proud; we were not so aligned eight (short!) years ago.

        One reason for past discord was the multiple disciplines – biology, chemistry, math, business, engineering – that come together under CSUPERB’s programmatic umbrella. We speak different languages. Despite our harmonious retreat in November, one theme that emerged from our conversations and our fall faculty surveys was the need to build even stronger and more effective internal (within-the-CSU) partnerships. Our old explanation for why CSUPERB faculty banded together was to build “critical mass” across our chronically underfunded public university. But I think the underpinning reasons for the CSUPERB faculty’s desire to collaborate has shifted to reflect how information is shared, science is done and teaching practice has evolved in 2014. We currently support biology and math collaborations (a theme of one of our symposium workshops). Internal collaboration might mean academic affairs and student affairs working together – intentionally and tightly – to help all students persist to a STEM degree.  It might also mean working together across campuses to offer innovative, “massively-parallel-undergraduate” research opportunities around a real-world genomics research project.  It might mean melding business and science/engineering faculties to better teach biotechnology commercialization concepts.  All of these collaborations serve to set students up for success in college and in the world after graduation.  It’s a good thing for students – but how can faculty and administrators get better at it without losing needed disciplinary expertise and perspectives within the university?

        I’m thankful – as always – for the multi-disciplinary voices and opinions shared with me in person and online as we do this work. CSUPERB’s work won’t end with the year – we have plenty to do in 2015 (like that symposium Jan. 8-10th!)!  A happy New Year to you all!

        Readings for the New Year

        Lior Pachter (December 2014) The two cultures of mathematics and biology.  Bits of DNA Blog.

        Amy Celep & Sara Brenner (October 2014) Integrating Intentional Influence into Your Strategy. Stanford Social Innovation Review.

        Mark J. Graham, Jennifer Frederick, Angela Byars-Winston, Anne-Barrie Hunter, Jo Handelsman (2013) Increasing Persistence of College Students in STEM. Science Vol. 341: pp. 1455-1456. 

        John Kania & Mark Kramer (Winter 2011) Collective Impact. Stanford Social Innovation Review.

        Dana O’Donovan & Noah Rimland (January 2013) The Strategic Plan is Dead. Long Live StrategyStanford Social Innovation Review.

        Chris Newfield (December 2014) Trends We Can Work With: Higher Ed in 2015. Remaking the University Blog.



          CSUPERB Trends

          I had to do it.  I used Google Trends to check out CSUPERB.

          Here is the result:

          Google Trends search on "CSUPERB" (12-3-2014).

          Google Trends search on “CSUPERB” (12-3-2014).

          Why that periodicity in searches for CSUPERB?  Well – if you dial in – the peaks are in the November-December-January timeframe. Yep.  It’s symposium season.*

          The team here is fielding dozens of phone calls and emails daily and the annual CSU biotechnology symposium website is getting hundreds of hits. Symposium registration closes this evening at 5pm.  It’s also time to remember to use the #CSUPERB hashtag! Tomorrow we’ll still be nailing down the details, recruiting mentors and putting final touches on workshop designs before we all meet up in Santa Clara January 8th. Hope to see you there!


          *Symposium season overlaps most years with rainy season in San Diego, where the CSUPERB program office is located. We are happy to report rain these last two days as well!

            Thankful for True Partnerships

            Yesterday we sent out award letters to the new 2015 Howell-CSUPERB Research Scholars, along with our annual program report to the Doris A. Howell Foundation for Women’s Health Research board.

            Howell Research Scholars are undergraduates who work alongside faculty researchers in biotechnology labs across the CSU.  For this program, the research projects proposed are relevant to women’s health.  The Howell Foundation defines women’s health quite broadly. As a result Howell projects range from basic research on the effects of ethanol on neurological development in fruit flies to clinical work to explore the links between sexually transmitted infections, sexual behavior and health outcomes in a campus setting.

            The impact of this program is best communicated by the Scholars themselves (see page 2 of the report, linked here).  As part of their final reports, we ask Scholars to self-report on their gains as a result of the research experience (click on the image below to get the larger, visible version!).  We use David Lopatto’s SURE format (mostly) to

            Students rank their learning gains as a result of undergraduate experience using a range from "very small gain" (=1) to "very large gain" (=5).  The 2014 Howell Scholars class reported average gains in the "large gain" to "very large gain" range!

            Students rank their learning gains as a result of undergraduate experience using a range from “very small gain” (=1) to “very large gain” (=5). The 2014 Howell Scholars class reported average gains in the “large gain” to “very large gain” range. Interesting, the lowest self-reported gains this year related to science writing skills.

            investigate learning gains as a result of the undergraduate research experience.  Even though most of the 2014 class of Howell Scholars had worked previously in a research laboratory, all of them reported large or very large overall benefits from the Howell-sponsored experience.

            Most scholars work on their funded projects part-time during the spring term, then immerse themselves in the project over the summer. This kind of opportunity – to take a deep dive into a single research project – remains open to only a minority of undergraduate CSU STEM students.  In answer CSU faculty and administrators continue their work to develop new external partnerships, internship programs, and project-based learning in courses throughout the undergraduate curriculum.

            Many of the Howell Scholars mentioned the importance of their faculty mentor. We know the immersive, working partnership and team-building between student, peer and faculty researchers offers a context in which students see themselves as scientists (often for the first time).  The teamwork and camaraderie students experience in working laboratories helps students persist even in the face of technical set-backs (and long experiments!).

            “…there was a week in mid July; my experiment was behind schedule, and I need to report my data to my PI the next week. I therefore decided to work full time over the weekend. I told my fellow students that they didn’t have to go. However, all of them, all 3, decided that they’ll come in anyway, to help me get my work done. It was that moment that I realized how good of a team I had with me.” – Phuc Nguyen (CSU Long Beach, 2014 Howell Scholar)

            True partnerships – shared goals, camaraderie, teamwork – are special things.  Our thirteen-year-long partnership with the Doris A. Howell Foundation is something we are thankful for here at CSUPERB.  Together we’ve been a good team!  The Howell donors remained committed to undergraduate researchers during the Great Recession; not all organizations were so steady in their giving during those years.  Likewise, CSUPERB was fortunate to maintain our budget for this program even in the face of deep cuts in state support for the CSU.

            Both CSUPERB and the Howell Foundation have a long-view (influenced by the remarkable Dr. Howell) on educating physicians, clinicians and researchers. We know the effect of two terms spent in a research group plays out over decades and careers. We look forward to hearing from our Howell Scholar alums in February; every three years we reach out to them to find out where they are.  They often write heartfelt notes; they are still exceedingly thankful for the opportunities the Howell Foundation, its board and its donors made possible.

              Waltzing Through Customer Discovery

              I’m not sure I’ve met a braver, entrepreneurial student researcher than Manmeet Singh. Ms. Singh is in the fourth year of her studies at CSU Sacramento.  She’s majoring in biology with an emphasis in Cell and Molecular Biology; she’s minoring in Chemistry and Dance.  She’s also serving as a member of the CSU I-Corps teaching team for our current student teams challenge.

              Manmeet was on the team that won the 2014 CSUPERB Idea-to-Product (I2P) Challenge last year (the precursor to the CSU I-Corps program).  But she didn’t stop there; she agreed to be the Entrepreneurial Lead (EL) on a CSU Sacramento NSF I-Corps™ Team proposal, led by Dr. Warren Smith (PI).  John Chapman (President of Stem Cell Partners, LLC), rounded off the three-person team as industry mentor (IM).  The proposal was successful and the team travelled to University of Michigan’s I-Corps™ Node this summer as part of NSF’s “national” Teams program.  They ended up winning kudos from the University of Michigan teaching team for the learning they did this summer.

              Manmeet Singh (with award in hand), John Chapman and Warren Smith receive an award "to the team that best embodied the spirit of I-Corps" from the University of Michigan I-Corps Node Teaching Team (Summer 2014)

              Manmeet Singh (with award in hand), John Chapman and Warren Smith receive an award “to the team that best embodied the spirit of I-Corps” from the University of Michigan I-Corps Node Teaching Team (Summer 2014)

              Last Friday we held the last webinar for the current group of CSU I-Corps student teams. Manmeet told her story and gave the student teams advice for “getting out of the building” and learning about product-market fit.

              Last week CSUPERB put out the call for faculty-led CSU I-Corps teams, configured just like the “national” I-Corps Teams Program (PI + EL + IM).  The NSF hopes that successful CSU I-Corps teams will go on and apply for national I-Corps Team grants, as well as SBIR/STTR, VentureWell or Lemelson-MIT prizes.

              I’m getting lots of emails and calls from interested and curious faculty members asking how this program works.  I figured the best way to answer many of their questions would be to interview Dr. Smith and Ms. Singh here as guest bloggers! I interviewed them separately, so you’ll get their different perspectives on the experience.*  Every time they refer to I2P (the program we ran 2012-2014), think of CSU I-Corps (the program going forward!).  I’ll turn it over to them to give you a candid look at I-Corps™!

              How did you meet your team members?

              Warren Smith (WDS): ” In 2010, I was Co-Principal Investigator for Sacramento State with UC Davis and Fisk University on an NSF Partnerships for Innovation (PFI) grant. That grant offered a one-week intensive Entrepreneurship Academy put on by the UC Davis Center for Entrepreneurship. John Chapman and I met as participants in that Academy. We arranged for John to be appointed as Adjunct Professor at Sac State, and John began working with teams of Sac State engineering and biological sciences students on regenerative medicine projects. Biological Sciences undergraduate student Manmeet Singh began working on these projects with John. In 2013, I got to know Manmeet when she was a member of a Sac State CSUPERB I2P team. John and I mentored her team, and that team won first place at the 2014 I2P competition in Santa Clara. That team’s product was a regenerative medicine device that was related to the product that we chose for the NSF I-Corps Teams grant.”

              Why did you want to join up and go after the NSF I-Corps Team grant?

              Manmeet Singh (MS): “Dr. Smith came to our lab and was talking about the NSF I-Corps Teams Program and said that this would be a great opportunity to connect the biology department with the engineering department…Dr. Chapman looked at me for a while and thought the Autologous Thrombin Device (ATD) would be a great project to submit and he gave me the opportunity to take the lead on the project because I know all the transformations that the device has gone through…”

              WDS: “In February 2014, NSF informed me that I was eligible to be Principal Investigator on an I-Corps Teams grant because of my previous involvement in NSF grants.** (After serving as Co-PI on an NSF PFI grant, I served as subaward Project Director on an NSF Accelerating Innovation Research (AIR) grant and am now serving as subaward Project Director on an NSF PFI:AIR grant.) From the grant description, I saw that John Chapman was a great fit to the Mentor position. He suggested Manmeet Singh as the Entrepreneurial Lead. John and I saw that the grant was a great opportunity for a student as capable as Manmeet. John saw the value of customer discovery. I wanted to learn more about what it takes to move a biomedical product to market.”

              Can you describe your current (post-U. Michigan) product concept and its value proposition?

              WDS:  “The product, the Autologous Thrombin Device, provides thrombin on demand from a patient’s own blood rapidly and at low cost to promote tissue healing. The autologous thrombin is safer than currently-used bovine thrombin.”

              MS: “It is a much safer alternative to bovine thrombin, which is derived from cow’s blood, decreasing immunological risks and foreign body reactions.”

              How did your product concept change from what it was before I2P? From what it was before you went through the U. Michigan program?

              MS: “Before the I2P competition we had the idea and a rough draft of what the product would look like but it was still going through a ton of troubleshooting experiments…The device itself along with the ratios of the fluids that we used to produce thrombin continuously changed until 8 months before we learned about the NSF I-Corps Teams Program. Our product concept and everything still remains the same as it was before the U. Michigan program but there are definitely some great things we learned through our customer interviews…”

              How did your business model canvas change from what it was before I2P? From what it was before you went through the U. Michigan program?

              MS: “During the I2P, we had a vision of our product being perfect and everyone would love it. We never really thought about or knew how many other steps are required in order to make a product idea into a reality. Before the U. Michigan Program, we had just learned about a business model canvas and we simply filled in what we knew even though we really felt like we had no idea what we were doing. However, looking back at all the business canvases…day 1 to the final presentations, it definitely showed that we had come a long way… [We now understand better] all the barriers and obstacles that one must go through simply to learn about the pains and needs of your customer segments. It was a great learning experience for sure.”

              WDS: “Before the 2013 I2P competition and the U. Michigan program, we depended on the literature and the FDA’s black-box warning label on bovine thrombin to conclude that the Autologous Thrombin Device, producing safer thrombin, would be of sufficiently widespread, recognized value to justify the formation of a manufacturing company. After the customer discovery process of the U. Michigan program, we learned that a smaller market valued autologous over bovine thrombin, so that a licensing model was more appropriate.”

              Was there an advantage of going through I2P (CSU I-Corps) before applying/attending the national I-Corps program at U. Michigan?

              MS: “For me, there was definitely a great advantage! I2P [gave me the] confidence to talk in front of a 200+ crowd. We were required to answer questions for 5-10 minutes after our presentation and the questions could have been about anything regarding our project. At least for the I2P competition you are aware that you will be asked questions at the end of the presentation; however, the National I-Corps Teams Program was an entirely different ball game! I was not only the youngest in the cohort but also the very first presenter at our first day in Michigan, and the judges were having a great time throwing rapid fireball questions at me, which they actually admitted to! Had I not had the experience of being asked questions that I was unprepared for, I probably would not have been able to survive on that stage. As soon as I started speak, two of the instructors from the teaching team shouted loudly ,”WHY?! SO WHAT?!! WHO CARES?!?!” That really frightened me because it was totally unexpected. I may not have answered all the questions appropriately but I made sure that I at least answered all of them to the best of my abilities. After my presentation, the Program Director of NSF, Rathindra DasGupta, stood up and applauded me for my confidence and being able to stand up on the stage and answer all the questions by the judges without any hesitation. To be honest, he really boosted up my spirit that day because after I saw the other groups present, I felt like I did a terrible job compared to everyone else.”

              WDS: “Yes, going through I2P was extremely valuable for all of us. John and I benefitted by mentoring I2P teams for all three years of the competition, and Manmeet benefitted from going through the last I2P competition. Getting familiar with the I2P judging criteria and having opportunities to make presentations and receive feedback from experts were very valuable preparations for the U. Michigan program.”

              As of this moment – have you started a new company around the business model canvas you developed at the U. Michigan I-Corps? If not – what is your short-term (1-2 year) commercialization plan – or – are you headed back to the lab to do more R&D? Are you personally continuing to work with the team?

              MS: “We started a company; however, this ATD is the first device that we wish to market through our company. The ATD is the driving force of several other product ideas that we have in mind, such as StemPATCH, which is a kit that contains the tools necessary for physicians to create a biological tissue composite to reduce adhesions and induce the natural healing process. We have already signed a contract with a leading surgical company in Europe to bring this device into the European Market first, then [in] the United States. I will be continuing my work with the ATD in addition to new and upcoming product ideas that revolve around the ATD.”

              WDS: “As part of the I-Corps Teams grant application process, our team was interviewed by I-Corps program officer Rathindra (Babu) DasGupta and U. Michigan instructors, and I was specifically asked if, as Principal Investigator, I intended to change career pathways from academic to business. My response was that I very much wanted to learn more about what it takes to advance a biotechnology product to market, but for the purpose of better helping my students, not to go into business myself. I thought that my response would jeopardize our chances of getting a grant, but the I-Corps program officer told me that that is the usual and expected response of the Principal Investigators on the I-Corps teams.”

              Was there an “a-ha” moment in your customer discovery process? Asked other ways: what was your most important, surprising or memorable “pivot” or what was the assumption you had the most difficulty letting go?

              MS: “The most shocking moment for the entire team was to realize through our interviews how much doctors are accepting of bovine thrombin use and basically narrowing it down to if the patient is able to get up off the operating table – then they’ll use the product. At that point we did not have much of a “need to have” type of product but then we learned that Europe actually banned the use of bovine products. That’s when we realized our real customers are in Europe! Forget pivoting into a new customer segment we had to pivot into a whole new, foreign market! When we learned this I did not think for a second that I would be able to go to Europe and speak to company owners and representatives themselves, one-on-one. It was the best experience of a lifetime!”

              WDS: “Before the customer discovery process, we thought that the FDA’s black-box warning on bovine thrombin would cause every user of thrombin to prefer the Autologous Thrombin Device, which makes thrombin from the patient’s own blood. A big “a-ha” moment was that, in our customer interviews, we learned that many clinicians are willing to use bovine thrombin and therefore are not motivated to change to autologous thrombin. Next “a-ha” moments were that bovine thrombin is shunned in Europe, so that autologous thrombin is of much greater interest there, and that some [medical] specialties in the U.S. also are very interested in using autologous thrombin. So, there is a market, though it’s not as big as we initially thought.”

              Do you “buy-in” to the Lean LaunchPad process for biotechnology commercialization? Why?

              WDS: “Yes, to biotechnology scientists and engineers, it makes sense to do experiments in order to develop a business model, just as we do experiments to advance our biotechnology research. Also, there’s no substitute to actually interviewing customers and others in the ecosystem.”

              For readers like you – do you have a piece of advice for other nascent academic biotech entrepreneurs?

              WDS: “As an academic, I knew that it would be extremely challenging to be on an I-Corps team and go through the I-Corps program, but I believed that I would learn the most by this “learning-by-doing.” It was very demanding, but worthwhile – I’m still processing all that I got out of the intense experience.”

              MS: “Be the leader and make the most out of your experience. You need to really think like a an entrepreneur to really understand who you need to talk to and why, and with your scientific background be able to narrow down the specific customers that you wish to target. It is easy to ask people for an interview but it is difficult to get them to actually say yes. Use all your resources, LinkedIn, Professors, research labs at your universities, etc. What I have learned is that you really need to make yourself sound and look credible. If you know enough information about your topic to have a full blown conversation…people will actually give you a chance to speak to them. Ask your interviewees if they have anyone (at least 3) individuals in their minds that they believe would be great to speak with about your product idea.”

              Anything else? Like..how many customers/experts/advisors did you interview? Who were your favorites?

              WDS: “From July 14 to August 24, 2014, our team was asked to do at least 100, preferably in-person, interviews. Each week of the course, the instructors told us that our team needed to do more to reach that number. When the 24 teams in our cohort made our final presentations at U. Michigan on August 25, 2014, each team that got to 100 interviews was applauded. We did 82 interviews and weren’t applauded. So, we were greatly surprised when the instructors gave out their only award to our team, for best embodying the I-Corps spirit. I felt very grateful that so many clinicians and others gave of their valuable time to talk with us, including specialists in orthopedic surgery, periodontics, oral surgery, podiatry, burns, veterinary medicine, perfusion, nursing, hospital procurement, international trade, and marketing. Several weeks into the course, the instructors told us that we really needed to go do interviews in Europe, so Manmeet, our Entrepreneurial Lead, did so in the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. A person in Switzerland even flew to Brussels to meet with Manmeet.”

              MS: “We interviewed a total of 86 professionals within a 5 week time period. I would have to say that I enjoyed speaking to all of my interviewees because they were all very considerate and gave out little secrets to me in order to help guide my next steps in the program which I really enjoyed…At the UC Davis Medical Center, I had the pleasure of meeting with an Orthopedic Surgeon who is doing a great deal of research himself regarding growth factors in platelet-rich plasma, Dr. Mauro M. Giordani. He was a great pleasure to speak to because he not only shared his personal thoughts about the product idea but how others feel about it, and he gave great examples of surgeries that use thrombin or platelet-rich plasma. The way he explained the details really interested me and I really wish I was able to see the procedure where they use autologous cartilage to repair damaged cartilage in real life! In Europe, I had the great pleasure of meeting with Michael Joos who is the CEO and a co-founder of the Avance Medical Groups in Geneva, Switzerland. He flew out from Geneva to Brussels, Belgium in order to meet with me and speak to me about our product idea. He had a great personality, very enthusiastic and extremely informative. Joos was the one who really told us that there is definitely a market for our product and that it will be something that the United States will approve soon as well. He was also extremely encouraging and really acknowledged me for what I have done and what I am currently doing at such a young age. I am very grateful of the opportunities that I have been given through the I2P and the National I-Corps Teams Program. These programs have truly made me way more confident and credible than I was ever before. My public speaking skills and social skills have improved to the point that I cannot tell if I am actually that same quiet individual that I used to be.”

              *Ms. Singh and Dr. Smith’s responses have been lightly edited for style and clarity.

              **One benefit of working through the CSU I-Corps Site is that teams are eligible for the NSF I-Corps Teams program, even if team members have not previously been an NSF principal investigator.