STARTUP Central project will educate and support biomedical researchers turning innovations into new companies
LAWRENCE — Bringing an idea from a lab to patients and consumers can be a complicated and intimidating process involving patents, governmental regulations, product development, business structuring, hiring issues and many more complex considerations.
Now, a $3 million initiative based at the University of Kansas will empower biomedical researchers in public universities and colleges across several Plains states to carry their innovations to the marketplace.
The effort involves both a private firm based at KU Innovation Park, Continuum Educational Technologies PBC, and KU researchers working under a new $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health’s IDeA Regional Entrepreneurship Development (I-RED) program.
The three-year project is called Smart Tools to Accelerate Research Translation by Uplifting Participants for the Central IDeA State Region, or STARTUP Central. Currently, the STARTUP Central team is developing an online educational curriculum to train academic researchers on how to commercialize their innovations.
“The core idea of the product is to adapt existing educational resources currently delivered through traditional methods, such as courses and in-person events, into a smart online educational product,” said Lisa Friis, professor and chair of mechanical engineering at KU, who is leading work on the university side of the grant as principal investigator. “We’re collaborating with experts in educational psychology, including individuals from KU, to better understand how adult learners acquire knowledge. This will inform the development of the product, ensuring that faculty, staff and students can engage with the material at their own pace on their own time while maintaining high levels of engagement and comprehension.”
The launch of the smart educational training product, called InspireU2 iTi (iTi stands for “innovation, translation, impact”), will take place with two pilot programs based at public higher education intuitions in North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma.
STARTUP Central will soon solicit proposals from faculty, staff and student researchers in those states for biomedical innovations with commercial promise.
“The proposals could be on pharmaceuticals, medical devices or diagnostics — any medical product that could go forward and eventually help patients,” Friis said. “We’ll focus on assisting faculty, staff and students in learning how to transform their ideas into commercial ventures and startup companies, as smaller enterprises are often the stepping stones to larger corporations. In our region, not many people go down this pathway, which can make it challenging to forge ahead with the inherent high risks associated with startups. We aim to inspire academics and increase their probability of success in this process to make a positive impact on the world, despite these challenges.”
The self-paced lessons are tailored to fit into the busy lives of research professionals and students. Some lessons are inspirational, such as case studies of academic entrepreneurship, while others are purely practical, such as instruction on how to set up a company and apply for Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs.
“Each lesson is typically between five and 20 minutes, with each module consisting of five to nine lessons,” Friis said. “This concise format is designed to maintain engagement and provide value without overwhelming busy professionals, who often work on the lessons during evenings or weekends. It's also flexible enough to fit into short breaks during the day. Furthermore, each lesson offers the option for a deeper dive through external resources, allowing individuals to customize their learning experience to their desired level of depth."
Remote conferencing will enable STARTUP Central to connect participants in the first two pilot programs to experts, potential CEOs, funding sources and supportive peers, as well as offer one-on-one guidance as supplements to the online education.
“The STARTUP Central program will help bridge the gap between groundbreaking discoveries and real-world solutions,” said Adam Courtney, co-principal investigator of the initiative and interim CEO of KU Innovation Park, as well as president of Continuum Educational Technologies. “It’s a catalyst for innovation. By providing tools to faculty and research staff, the program can foster both health advancements and transformative economic opportunities.”
Indeed, biomedical startups can have economic benefits to nearby public institutions and regions. According to the NIH, the U.S. biomedical industry contributed over $69 billion to the nation’s gross domestic product last year.
“This project has the potential to be a game-changer for universities and their surrounding communities, including KU,” said Tricia Bergman, associate vice chancellor for economic development at KU, who is serving as assistant director of STARTUP Central. “By empowering our biomedical researchers and facilitating their journey from lab to market, we’re not only fostering innovation but also driving economic growth and improving health care outcomes. We look forward to the positive impact it will bring.”
During the pilot programs, feedback on and assessment of InspireU2 iTi will be used to further refine the modules. Afterward, the product will be rolled out more broadly to biomedical researchers who hope to bring their advances to patients in the marketplace. InspireU2 iTi is designed to be adaptable to other technology sectors, thus helping with the translation of research into products in other areas in the future.
“It's very exciting to be able to do this,” Friis said. “This has been a passion of mine — and I know it’s a passion for Adam and Tricia as well — to really help people understand how to go forward and take the research results and ideas you have and make a difference in the world through translation.”