Xudong Wang: I-Corps Experience Story

Researchers can achieve meaningful societal impact through multiple routes, but for Professor and Associate Chair of Named MS Studies, Xudong Wang, entrepreneurship has always been a compelling end goal. And, after seeking expertise from the campus accelerator program and the NSF program manager about his professional development, it became clear the I-Corps program would provide key skills for success in his entrepreneurial journey.

I-Corps helps researchers understand their audience—and in turn, their own technology—using customer discovery interviews. The main goal of these interviews? Exploring and understanding the potential market of the proposed technology. Researchers pose questions to relevant customers without asking them in context of their proposed technology. Doing so allows for honest, objective feedback about what consumer needs actually are.

Xudong Wang holding a piece of his innovative, energy harvesting floor.
Xudong Wang holding a piece of his innovative, energy harvesting floor. Image credit: Stephanie Precourt

“[I-Corps] is a good starting point if you want to get into entrepreneurship,” Wang says. “It is helpful as the first step moving from lab to industry, and it also helps you better understand your own technology.”

Wang researches piezoelectric materials: materials capable of generating electricity under mechanical strain. Applications of these materials have been vast, but Wang thought two of them: an energy harvesting floor and a cap to combat baldness, seemed particularly viable for commercialization.

Wang first participated in I-Corps with a flooring technology which generated energy through footsteps, imagining it would have demand in the renewable energy market. Through the I-Corps customer discovery interviews, however, Wang learned this audience would not likely be receptive to this kind of energy generation. Rather, a second audience emerged: companies interested in monitoring foot traffic. This insight allowed Wang to augment his technology using sensors to adhere to the needs of this new audience. Though this project still needs additional funding, the knowledge garnered from I-Corps strengthened Wang’s STTR proposal, allowing the project to progress while showcasing how I-Corps provides preparation and credibility for federal support opportunities.

Wang exhibiting his baldness cap. Image credit: Sam Million-Weaver.

Because of I-Corps’ efficacy, he attended it again with a second technology: a cap to stimulate hair growth using electric pulses. Though his second I-Corps experience did not yield as holistically transformative changes as the first, he gained an indispensable understanding of the technology’s market. Plus, it provided insight from a wide breadth of perspectives: from influencers, to retailers, doctors, dermatologists, and individual customers alike.

“For the first project, we were surprised to find out [our audience] was quite different than what we thought. We ended up doing something different with the technology.” Wang says. “The second one was pretty straightforward. But it allowed us to better understand the customer who needs it, leading to more detailed shaping, rather than a big picture change.”

For Wang, an unintended, yet invaluable benefit of the program manifested in the students serving as the entrepreneurial leads on the two projects. Because they led the interviewing initiatives, they developed integral soft skills, including in relationship-building and communication.

“[Students who completed the I-Corps program] are matured in comparison to other students. When they went out to interview for jobs, they killed it: everyone wanted them,” Wang says. “That is a personal skill developed through all of these interviews, cold calls, and conversations. You wouldn’t be able to get that in a lab.”

For researchers like Wang, entrepreneurship is an exciting way to bring innovation to the community. I-Corps helps bridge some of the important gaps between ideation and commercialization, providing essential, evidence-based strategies to effectively bring new technologies to market.

Author: Katie Amdahl