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I-Teams course readies technologies for market

Members of the Fuel Cell Breakthrough i-Team plan their strategy. From left, Jin Yi; Brett Prince  (with back to camera); Matt Ziskin;, principal investigator Yang Shao-Horn, professor of mechanical engineering; and Jeff Baer.
Members of the Fuel Cell Breakthrough i-Team plan their strategy. From left, Jin Yi; Brett Prince (with back to camera); Matt Ziskin;, principal investigator Yang Shao-Horn, professor of mechanical engineering; and Jeff Baer.
Photo / Luca Gatti

Graduate students who dream of bringing technologies from the test tube to the market can learn how to do it in a new hands-on course called "i-Teams." The course kicks off officially tonight (Sept. 29), after a rigorous, three-week teambuilding process.

I-Teams (short for Innovation Teams) is a joint product of the Sloan School and the School of Engineering. Each i-Team consists of four to six graduate students who develop go-to-market strategies for innovations created in Institute laboratories using grants from the Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation.

"Everybody talks about how MIT innovation and ingenuity have fueled the engine of American commerce, but nobody understands how that happens," said Ken Zolot, a senior lecturer at Sloan who is an i-Team instructor. "How do you go from being a scientist in a lab to a founder of a company, taking raw data and figuring out how to benefit society with it?" he said.

"MIT is so big when it comes to innovation. I wanted to experience it myself by doing it," said Darrel Quah, a student in the Systems Design and Management program who is involved in a project developing low-cost X-ray systems.

The syllabus is designed to reflect the way early entrepreneurship works. "You don't spend all semester thinking about your grand vision and then present it. You present your grand vision in the second week and then test it," said Zolot. "The most important thing the students do is go out and talk to potential customers, licensees, partners, competitors."

When they apply for the course, students must show that they have professional or research experience relevant to their chosen lab.

They spend the first three sessions building teams according to Professor Deborah Ancona's "X-Teams" philosophy, which emphasizes flexibility. They hash out the roles -- leader, technology specialist, marketing specialist -- that each team member will play as a company founder. The idea is to put together the most effective team possible for bringing a technology to market. In the process, the students experience the "intangible human element of entrepreneurial team formation," said Zolot.

In the next phase of the course, each team tests and re-tests its commercialization strategy. Guided by the labs' principal investigators, faculty from MIT's Entrepreneurship Center and leaders from the local business community, the graduate students identify a market for their lab's scientific breakthrough, develop an intellectual property strategy, perform competitive analysis and identify the appropriate business model.

The end result is a go-to-market plan that might actually go somewhere. For example, the members of Active Joint Brace, the company that won last spring's $50K Entrepreneurship Competition, credited their accomplishment to their participation in a pilot of the i-Teams course. Active Joint Brace is developing an electromechanical orthotic device that augments physical capability in people with spinal cord injuries and other disabilities.

The MIT Venture Capital and Private Equity Club and the MIT Entrepreneurship Center also provide support for the teams. Course instructors are Zolot; Professor Charles Cooney, faculty director of the Deshpande Center; and Edward Roberts, the David Sarnoff Professor of Management of Technology.

Upcoming projects

I-Teams projects for the fall semester are:

  • Low-cost X-ray systems: a low-cost x-ray imaging system made with off-the-shelf consumer digital imaging equipment that could be used in the developing world
  • Microfluidic platform for biological assays: a microfluidics-based hybridization platform for faster, easier biological assays
  • Fuel cell breakthrough: an innovative approach to fuel cells and metal-air batteries that could break the cost barriers impeding mass marketing of these devices
  • Colloidal crystals in minutes: rapid, cost-effective fabrication that could enable a wide range of new applications, such as catalysis, drug delivery and photonics
  • Powering the world's cellular networks: amplifiers based on a new ribbon-beam vacuum tube technology.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 29, 2004 (download PDF).

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