Frank Pfefferkorn & Buzz Rankouhi: I-Corps Experience Story

With opportunities to spearhead professional development, network, and truly understand the entrepreneurial potential of cutting-edge research technologies, the NSF I-Corps Program is an enlightening experience, but it takes both focus and dedication. For UW-Madison Scientist and co-founder of Dastan Technologies, Buzz Rankouhi and Mechanical Engineering Professor, Frank Pfefferkorn, a strong team committed to the development of the technology is imperative.

“It is a very insightful, very intense program where you get to meet a lot of people and, for me, learn a lot,” Pfefferkorn says.

Frank Pfefferkorn Headshot
Frank Pfefferkorn

I-Corps teams are composed of at least 3 people: a technical lead with deep expertise in the technology, an entrepreneurial lead who leads the commercialization efforts, including the execution of 100+ customer discovery interviews, and an industry mentor who provides insight from personal entrepreneurial experience. Rankouhi, the entrepreneurial lead, and Pfefferkorn, the technical lead, worked together on a team to evaluate the commercial potential of an innovative additive manufacturing technique, enabling the development and printing of complex parts with multi-metal alloys deposited in various locations using a single process.

According to both Rankouhi and Pfefferkorn, academics do not typically think about technology in the same way as entrepreneurs. Rather than exploring novel, groundbreaking technologies for the sake of expanding knowledge, industry tends to prioritize products meeting immediate needs, challenges, and opportunities. I-Corps helps bridge this fundamental gap between industry and academia and correct any misconceptions researchers have about what customers find valuable.

“What you assume is usually incorrect,” Rankouhi says, “There are things you don’t know that you don’t know.”

Buzz Rankouhi Headshot
Buzz Rankouhi

Through this process, Rankouhi and Pfefferkorn’s team, specifically, found their technology was not quite ready for commercialization. In their experience, I-Corps is most effective for teams who have proven their technology’s feasibility in the lab. While engineering risks, including the scalability and cost of the product, may still be uncertain, I-Corps seemed most suitable for teams whose technology was only about a year away from marketability.

Still, both Pfefferkorn and Rankouhi recommend the program and found the skills widely applicable in their careers. Pfefferkorn, specifically, has gained a new perspective to leverage as an educator. Given students in his courses have myriad available paths post-graduation, he finds his expanded ability to discuss the economic and industrial implications of additive manufacturing has made him a more thoughtful educator.

“It’s fun. You learn so much. It might not be related to [the technology] or might not be something you can use, but you talk to so many different people,” Pfefferkorn says. “[I learned] some factoids [I] had never seen published, which I use in class all of the time. It is so insightful.”

I-Corps provided Rankouhi and Pfefferkorn the opportunity to have meaningful conversations with people with various experiences and backgrounds. This has offered them a more holistic outlook of their field and expanded their understanding of their technology. They agree the experience was worthwhile regardless of the outcome.

“Even if it doesn’t work out, I think we have learned a lot,” Rankouhi says. “We’ve acquired a new set of skills that we can apply later to other ideas and other projects. I find that invaluable.”

Author: Katie Amdahl