NSF-Funded Program Helps UC San Diego Startups
San Diego, Calif., June 14, 2016 - The National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps program (I-Corps) at UC San Diego is helping entrepreneurs determine whether their idea could turn into a viable company.
I-Corps bridges the gap between idea formation and launching a startup through funding, mentoring and training in entrepreneurial thinking. As an NSF I-Corps Site, the von Liebig Entrepreneurism Center, part of the UC San Diego Institute for the Global Entrepreneur, incubates about 30 projects a year and serves as a feeder for the national I-Corps program. The purpose of the program is to teach startup teams to validate their business model before investing resources, time and money.
By the time bioengineering undergrad Priya Bisarya heard the UC San Diego had become a site for the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps program, she and her co-founder already had 8 patents pending. Bisarya applied to the program and was accepted.
Based on the Lean LaunchPad startup philosophy by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Steve Blank, I-Corps offers a two-phased approach to starting a company, with plenty of opportunity to acquire funding along the way. Throughout the program, teams are tasked with conducting customer interviews in order to identify the needs of the market.
“I-Corps taught us to think about who will actually use our technology – something we hadn’t thought about yet because we were so excited about the algorithm,” said Bisarya. “We went in with 6 or 7 customer segments that we really wanted to reach, and the first thing I-Corps taught us is that one of the biggest mistakes people make is trying to solve every problem at once.”
Bisarya’s project is an algorithm-based system with the goal of detecting psychophysiological stress and then pain.
“Pain is tricky,” said Bisarya. “It has a neurological basis because it has to do with perception and feeling. It’s not an isolated neurological phenomenon – there are physiological manifestations of pain. After talking to some industry mentors, we decided to file patents.”
Bisarya used money she had earned while working various jobs in high school to pay for the patents.
Bisarya’s I-Corps mentor was Dominic Tong, a physician entrepreneur. “It’s amazing that there are people out there with the contacts we need that are willing to share their knowledge and experience,” said Bisarya. “We learned so much about things we couldn’t possibly have thought of on our own.”
One of those things was the process of getting FDA approval. “Dr. Tong taught us to think about who would need to look at a new tool for pain measurement. Since we hoped to initially use our tool in clinical trials, we realized that the FDA would probably want to look at it.”
According to Bisarya, this kind of experience is incredibly valuable in medical technology, where starting a company and getting a product to market isn’t just about making an app and releasing it.
“In one of our customer interviews, the person said that she knows she has a high pain tolerance, so when she is asked to rate her pain, she arbitrarily chooses a number that the doctors will understand.” This is a common problem, says Bisarya, since patients who are addicted to painkillers are able to master the scale in order to obtain medication.
I-Corps gave Bisarya and her team the opportunity to refine their business model and to explain the value of their technology. It has also made them more comfortable with the steps they would need to go through to make their dream of having a startup a reality.
“I like the I-Corps model because it forces you to look for the market early on,” said Bisarya. “Before you even incorporate your company or develop your technology fully, you’re talking to the people that will be influencers and thought leaders in the field. I-Corps made me go from someone with a cool technology to someone with a cool technology that could help someone.”
Bisarya and her team are well on their way to helping people after placing third in a field of 24 teams in the Innovations and Technology track of the Entrepreneur Challenge at UC San Diego's $100,000 Business Plan Competition in May 2016.