NSF i-Corps grant helps fine-tune product, business model

Created on: July 26, 2012

Photo: Jeff Ackerman and Justin Siepel (far right) meet with client prospects as part of their NSF i-Corps project.)

Musculoskeletal injuries are the second most common reason to go to the doctor and cost $850 billion a year in the United States alone. Through their National Science Foundation (NSF) funded research on robotics, a Purdue graduate student and his advisor have created a device to help alleviate such injuries for people who carry heavy luggage, briefcases and even medical stretchers.

An additional grant from the NSF Innovation Corps (i-Corps) is helping mechanical engineering graduate student Jeffery Ackerman, Justin Seipel, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and Matt McKillip executive director of Tech Ventures, explore commercialization opportunities for a handle suspension system, which uses a precisely tuned spring to absorb the stress of lifting heavy objects.  i-Corps projects have been identified by the NSF as having "immediate potential for broader applicability and impact in the commercial world."

Ackerman and Seipel are working with Tech Ventures, which is headquartered in the College of Technology, as part of their commercialization process.

“This type of innovation could have many uses and users,” said Matt McKillip, who serves as the project’s i-Corps mentor. “EMTs, travelers, new parents, factory workers or anyone who does a lot of lifting.”

Moving and carrying heavy objects can cause 2-to-3 times the normal stress of simply picking up the same object, leading to possible damage to the body.

“This could be really beneficial for medical stretchers for paramedics or military personnel. It could alleviate further injury when transferring injured or wounded people during disaster relief,” Ackerman said.

Through the i-Corps program, the team is in the midst of a six-week entrepreneurial boot camp that broadens the impact of select, basic-research projects. The team has already attended a series of workshops to guide them in the Lean Launch Pad process developed by entrepreneur Steve Blank and used extensively at Stanford and Berkeley. Through the end of August, they are visiting potential investors, customers, suppliers, and competitors (up to 15 a week) to help analyze the viability of the product and build a winning business model.

The purpose of the NSF i-Corps is to move more discoveries out of the lab and into the marketplace. The handle suspension project is one of two i-Corps grants awarded to Purdue researchers. The grants are the first two awarded in the state. The program works with up to 100 projects each year. "The NSF cannot fund everybody using this mechanism, so they are focusing on building an Innovation Corps to accelerate the transfer of research and share new tech transfer methods with home institutions and local communities," Seipel said.

Watch a video that compares the handle suspension system with a regular luggage handle (20 seconds).

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