PHILADELPHIA — The National Science Foundation (NSF) has selected a University of Pennsylvania team as a member of its inaugural class of NSF Innovation Corps awards. The I-Corps Awards recognize research that has the potential for commercial applications and connects scientists to entrepreneurial resources.
“The idea is to facilitate the transfer of good ideas and intellectual property from the lab into the commercial world,” said team member Charlie Johnson, professor of physics and astronomy in Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences. “To borrow a catchphrase from the chemist George Whitesides, ‘Innovation plus entrepreneurship equals jobs.’”
In addition to Johnson, the Penn team members include Zhengtang Luo, a postdoctoral fellow in Johnson’s lab, and Michael Patterson, a member of the Wharton Executive MBA program. The three were brought together through Penn’s Center for Technology Transfer and its UPstart program.
UPstart serves as a business incubator for technologies developed at the University. It helped the team members found their start-up company, Graphene Frontiers, and encouraged them to apply for the NSF award.
The science behind the Penn start-up is a cheaper and more consistent method of making graphene, the Nobel Prize-winning nanomaterial with unbeatable strength and conductivity. Graphene promises to revolutionize everything from scientific instruments to consumer electronics, but current manufacturing techniques can only produce small flakes of it at a time.
Graphene Frontier’s method aims to manufacture large sheets of graphene at room temperature and pressure, unlike the extreme conditions necessary in other techniques.
“The fact that this is done at atmospheric pressure makes it possible to produce graphene at a lower cost and in a more flexible way,” Luo said. “The overall production system is simpler, less expensive and more flexible.”
The award comes with a $50,000 prize, which will be used to fund Luo’s position as Graphene Frontier’s chief scientific officer.
Patterson, who will serve as the company’s CEO, met Johnson and Luo through Michael Poisel, the director of UPstart. Looking for entrepreneurs to partner with researchers, Poisel brought examples of Penn’s patent portfolio to the Wharton Executive MBA program. With an interest in science and a background as a corporate executive, Patterson was drawn to Johnson and Luo’s research and the excitement of working with a small company, especially one with a potentially revolutionary technology at its core.
“Everything lined up: a good team, amazing technology and a nascent market with a lot of potential,” Patterson said. “I feel like we are on the ground floor with plastics in the 1950s.”
As I-Corps Award recipients, the team members will attend an NSF workshop at Stanford University, where they will receive a crash course in overcoming the hurdles technology start-ups often face. They will also have the opportunity to network with potential funders and investors and to continue taking business seminars through the NSF during the next year. UPstart will continue to support the start-up through this process.
“It’s an example of our ability to bring enthusiastic faculty into the world of entrepreneurialism without them having to actually leave the University to be entrepreneurs,” Poisel said about the award. “We’re having many discussions with other partners and investors; they have a lot of opportunity in front of them.”