Commercialization fellows

Harshawardhan Deshpande, Daniel Hoagland, and Ryan King (seated from left) explored how to turn ideas into real-world innovations through the HS&T Commercialization Fellows Program. They presented their strategies to (standing, from left) Geoff McCarty, vice president of marketing at Carter Machinery; Hal Irvin, Virginia Tech associate vice president for health sciences and technology outreach; James Ramey, principal and fund manager at Middleland Capital and the VTC Innovation Fund; Ashu Jain, founder and principal of Blue Ridge Innovation Management Advisors; Mary Miller, director of the Regional Accelerator and Mentoring Program; and Russ Ellis, president at gNext Labs and president of Common Wealth Growth Group.

HS&T fellows dive deep to learn how to commercialize ideas

An idea can’t survive in a vacuum, cut off from the rest of the world — just ask the inaugural trio of young scientists known as the Health Sciences and Technology Commercialization Fellows.

For more than eight months, Harshawardhan Deshpande, Daniel Hoagland, and Ryan King have been immersed in learning how to turn new ideas into real-world innovations.

Working in the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC and in collaborative space provided by a partnership with Virginia Western Community College at the Gill Memorial Hospital building in downtown Roanoke — home of the Regional Acceleration and Mentoring Program (RAMP) — the entrepreneurs-in-training crashed through the boundaries of their academic routines.

They each found a mentor who was proficient at moving ideas from the proverbial drawing board to the marketplace.

And, along the way, the commercialization fellows arrived at some common conclusions — innovation is customer-driven, considerate of stakeholder needs, and reliant on different styles of thinking.

Deshpande, a graduate student in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics in the Virginia Tech College of Engineering, intended to use neuromarketing technology to develop a novel approach to product packaging and advertising.

Meanwhile, Hoagland, who was mentored by Ashu Jain, founder and principal of Blue Ridge Innovation Management Advisors, was familiar with drug discovery work in an academic world, but thought commercialization could be an alternative path to get medicine and treatments to patients.

And King, a student in Virginia Tech’s Translational Biology, Medicine and Health graduate program, reflected on his student experiences and thought there had to be a way to streamline the graduate application process to make it easier for students applying, as well as for the schools reviewing the applications.

“The most important thing I learned was how early you need to have customer input,” said King, who worked with mentor Russ Ellis, president at gNext Labs and president of Common Wealth Growth Group. “I had an idea to create a platform to help late-stage graduate students match with postdoctoral advisers; however, as I started doing customer discovery I quickly realized the solution I had dreamed up was not suitable for either postdoc applicants nor their potential mentors. It taught me an immense amount about how important it is to involve all stakeholders early in the process.”

The fellows universally learned to value outside input.

“Thinking about products as things that customers ‘hire’ to do a job and designing them accordingly is a concept I'm still getting used to, but is invaluable to start-up companies,” said Deshpande, who was mentored by Geoff McCarty, vice president of marketing at Carter Machinery. “The customer-centered innovation approach as opposed to starting with an idea and trying to fit its applications to a market was a revelation.”

The different thought process applied to drug discovery as well.

“I now have an appreciation for a completely different style of thinking,” said Hoagland, a postdoctoral associate in the laboratory of Robert Gourdie, a professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. “Rather than just crunching data and continuing to hone and develop ideas for the next question I want to ask, I have to stop and think about what stakeholders need to know. People who ultimately might fund further research may not be familiar with the technical aspects of my idea, but they are very familiar with risks and pitfalls associated with similar ideas.”

The commercialization program was funded by Virginia Tech’s Office of the Vice President for Health Sciences and Technology.

Deshpande, Hoagland, and King will talk about their experiences at a presentation at noon on Tuesday, Feb. 19, at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. The session will also provide an overview of the 2019 commercialization fellows program, which is accepting applications from graduate students and postdoctoral associates engaged in health sciences and technology study or research until 5 p.m. Feb. 25.

The fellows illustrate one of the ways the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, which was recently named in honor of a gift from Heywood and Cynthia Fralin and the Horace G. Fralin Charitable Trust, and Virginia Western work together to create opportunities, officials said.

“This is a great example of a collaboration that addresses the region’s workforce development priorities in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM),” said Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and vice president for health sciences and technology at Virginia Tech. “By supporting one another, we can create a direct link between our research and graduate programs and the growth of STEM-related programming at Virginia Western.”

Virginia Western is finishing construction of a new, $30 million-plus STEM Building that is opening to students in Fall Semester 2019.

“When the new Virginia Western Fralin Scholars are awarded in 2019, funded through the Fralins’ generous contributions, there will be a natural bridge between those talented STEM students and the graduate students at the research institute for enrichment opportunities,” said Virginia Western President Robert Sandel. “Together, we have the potential to build a stronger pipeline of STEM-related graduates who can feed the employment needs for life and health science companies in our region.”

Virginia Western and the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute have agreed to continue to work together to promote career-development opportunities for the benefit of students, faculty and staff on the Roanoke campuses of both institutions.