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Bridging New Technology's "Valley Of Death"

Julie Lenzer Kirk's nonprofit Path Forward Center brings women entrepreneurs together with scientists and engineers, helping to bridge the gap between basic research, innovation and the marketplace

Photo of Julie Lenzer Kirk, top, and Renee Lewis, bottom, Path Forward Center co-founders.

Julie Lenzer Kirk (top) and Renee Lewis (bottom), Path Forward Center co-founders.
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In 1995, after a successful career with IBM, Julie Lenzer Kirk left her job to launch a software company, Applied Creative Technologies, devoted to the creation and distribution of barcode inventory control software.

She quickly learned that being an entrepreneur and businesswoman required different skills than she had developed in her years as a computer scientist and information technology specialist. Nevertheless, Kirk is a quick learner and her company began to thrive.

Ten years after founding Applied Creative Technologies and just as Kirk was involved in merger discussions with another company, an invitation arrived from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, to teach in its new ACTiVATE® program.

The new program, designed to give women the entrepreneurial skills to bring new technologies to market, had been funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the federal agency with primary responsibility for funding basic research in science and engineering.

ACTiVATE action
Since its inception, ACTiVATE® has helped launch over 35 new companies in Maryland.

As Kirk found through personal experience with her own company, bringing new technologies and innovations to market requires different skills than those needed to discover and develop those technologies.

One example of an ACTiVATE® success is Encore Path, a new company that markets a device developed by doctors and engineers at the University of Maryland Medical School. The company is headed by Kris Appel, an early graduate of the ACTiVATE® program, and the device, known as the Tailwind, is used to help patients recover from stroke-induced paralysis.

I for innovation

In this year's State of the Union address, President Barack Obama spoke at length about the need to encourage new innovation in the country, arguing that investments in science and technology can advance the economy while simultaneously making progress on some of the serious problems facing the nation in health, the environment and other areas.

We did this in the 1960s, he explained, when the United States put a man on the moon and, in the process, discovered an array of new technologies that had a huge impact on the economy. "This is our generation's Sputnik moment," he said, as he announced new, major investments in several areas of research, including health, energy and information technology.
The federal government has been involved in supporting basic research for decades, but translating those investments into new industries and businesses that can directly impact the economy has always been a problem.

When President Harry Truman signed a bill in 1950 establishing NSF, the hope was to create a federal agency that would oversee the nation's progress in scientific education and research while also helping to "advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare" among other things. The idea was that the federal government would provide seed money to the nation's scientists and new industries would spring up and spread.

"Valley of death"

Unfortunately, as many scientists and engineers who have discovered a promising new technology have found, it is very difficult to bridge the divide between a basic research discovery and a viable product or marketable technology.

People who study innovation refer to the gap between federally funded research and a new commercialized technology as the "valley of death" where new technologies go to die. Bridging that chasm is crucial for the nation's prosperity, but as Kirk and her colleagues can attest, it is not easy, and many companies don't even try.

A recent NSF Report found that only 8 percent of non-manufacturing companies introduced new products or process innovations in the most recent reporting period. Manufacturing companies were slightly better, with 22 percent reporting innovations in their products or processes.

Moving into the marketplace
In order to move new discoveries to the marketplace, private industry not only needs to make investments, but also must learn about the discoveries that scientists have made in their labs and bring those ideas into a marketable form.
The ACTiVATE® program, funded by NSF's Partnerships for Innovation Program, is designed to find ways to bridge that valley of death between the lab and the marketplace and help convert some of the country's many new technological discoveries into marketable products or processes.
After teaching for awhile in the ACTiVATE® program, Kirk discovered that she had a real passion for helping other women do what she had done herself: Develop and launch new technology-oriented companies. She cashed out of her own company, but continued to devote her energies to the ACTiVATE® program.

However, her own entrepreneurial spirit could not be held down for long. She recently licensed the ACTiVATE program from the University of Maryland and co-founded a brand new nonprofit known as the Path Forward Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. The Center is devoted to licensing the ACTiVATE® program and curriculum to other parts of the country while continuing to expand the community of growth-oriented women entrepreneurs.
Among the Path Forward Center's recent success stories are a new pharmaceutical company, a computer-based assessment company and one that markets advanced treatments for chronic pain--all companies developed and launched by women entrepreneurs who have been through the ACTiVATE® program. Kirk's efforts are not only helping women launch new businesses, but are also helping to bridge the "valley of death" chasm where new technologies would otherwise go to die.

Editor's Note: In addition to ACTiVATE®, NSF is also addressing the entrepreneurial "valley of death" through the public-private partnership called the NSF Innovation Corps. Learn more on the I-Corps website.


The NSF Innovation Corps (I-Corps) guides promising research with commercial potential out of university laboratories.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has established a new opportunity to assess the readiness of emerging technology concepts for transitioning into valuable new products through a public-private partnership. The NSF Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program will bring together the technological, entrepreneurial, and business know-how to bring discoveries ripe for innovation out of the university lab.

While the knowledge gained from NSF-supported basic research frequently advances a particular field of science or engineering, some results also show immediate potential for broader applicability and impact in the business world. These results may be translated into technologies with near-term benefits for the economy and society.
With the I-Corps grants, NSF will strategically identify these nascent concepts and leverage its investment in basic research for technology innovation. To do so successfully--and to address the national need for economic growth--will require a public–private partnership.
The I-Corps program will initially support up to 100 projects annually, at $50,000 each, for up to six months.

I-Corps will also provide students with opportunities to learn about and participate in the process of transforming scientific and engineering discoveries into useful technologies.
The press release and FAQs posted on the website provide additional information, but I want to emphasize some important details:
  1. NSF's core mission is to fund basic research in all fields of science and engineering. I-Corps supports this mission by helping to transform scientific output into technological innovation.
  2. I-Corps will leverage existing funding for Partnerships for Innovation, Accelerating Innovation Research, Engineering Research Centers, Science and Technology Centers, and SBIR/STTR.
  3. Support will also come from our private-sector partners and regional partners, including universities, industries, venture capitalists, and nonprofits. The partnership with universities will also contribute to the development of novel pedagogical tools.
  4. The essence of I-Corps is to Identify, Nurture, and Link.
  5. NSF I-Corps will help create a new network that will strategically connect NSF-funded scientists and innovators to the national innovation ecosystem.
  6. Given NSF's uniquely broad scope and bandwidth across all science and engineering research, Innovation Corps could also serve as a data collection resource. This will increase our understanding of the connection between fundamental research and innovation.
NSF is pleased to be working with the Deshpande Foundation and the Kauffman Foundation as founding members of the I-Corps public-private partnership.
The Deshpande Foundation has been a strong supporter of innovation as a catalyst for positive change. Their support of I-Corps is their first partnership with NSF and a testament to the potential impact of the effort.
The Kauffman Foundation has a history devoted to the support of entrepreneurship and entrepreneurship education, and their participation in I-Corps continues a rich relationship with NSF.

Also see NSF Director Subra Suresh's talking points on NSF's Innovation Corps.

One of the general goals of the Partnerships for Innovation Program (PFI) is to stimulate the transformation of knowledge created by the research and education enterprise into innovations that create new wealth; build strong local, regional, and national economies; and improve the national well-being.  Aligned with this goal, the PFI competition for FY 2011 funds will provide support for innovation capacity building to sustained, dynamic interactive knowledge-enhancing partnership groups composed of academic researchers and small business (as defined by the Small Business Administration (SBA)) practitioners focused on intense exploration, re-definition, and creation of novel platforms for translating research and moving it towards impact.  

The basic organizational core of each proposed knowledge-enhancing partnership group must be composed of an academic lead institution and, at a minimum, two small businesses. 

These newly created partnership groups will provide small group process models for innovation, their hallmark being a collaboration in which research and its translation paths are shaped and expanded from both the research and the business perspectives. While the center-piece of this group is academe and small business, large businesses and non-profits may participate in this core knowledge-enhancement partnership unit, which in turn may be embedded in the broader network of a PFI partnership.

The purpose of these knowledge-enhancing partnership groups is to develop researchers more agile in adapting their research for use in new applications and to increase the potential viability of existing small businesses to leverage this capacity.  In particular, these interactive relationships will increase the researchers' effectiveness to respond to and anticipate the constraints imposed by the operational limitations on translation of the research.  They will improve the business practitioners' capability to develop products that will have potentially strong market demand in the future.

The ideal project would consist of exploration, re-definition, and creation of a novel platform, that is, one that can be applied to many markets and problems/opportunities (multi-product or process platforms).

Some examples of platforms include the following:

  • laser-based technologies that have multiple applications in product verticals; software algorithms that can be customized in different applications to provide multiple functionalities; nano-structured materials that may have multiple applications, environmental remediation technologies; 
  • re-manufacturing technologies--a more sustainable approach than conventional manufacturing involving a process of returning used products to at least original performance--that can be applied to diverse industries; 
  • energy conservation or storage technologies;
  • innovation through design or education in innovation with widespread impact; and personalized medicine/genetic testing. 
  • Partnerships that support areas pertaining to energy, sustainability, or education of next generation entrepreneurs are particularly desirable.  
  • Some examples of the kinds of activities that could be engaged in by the knowledge-enhancing partner companies working with academe are feasibility research, alpha-prototype development, design, and product conceptualization.

This competition will support 9 to 11 promising partnerships between academic researchers and small business practitioners that engage in the important process of dynamic knowledge enhancement to build capacity to generate and sustain innovation.  Partnerships may also include other academic institutions, other private sector organizations (such as large businesses and not-for-profit organizations) and state/local/federal government.

This Behind the Scenes article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

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