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As I-Corps Interns, Business Students Put Assumptions to Test

NSF-funded Program Helps Researchers Explore Market Opportunities for Technologies

A woman with dark hair wearing a face covering sits in a classroom Photo by Ed Brennen
Lani Faith Gacula was one of the first Manning School of Business graduate students to complete the new I-Corps Intern Program. Gacula, who is now pursuing a Ph.D. in entrepreneurship, worked with Assoc. Prof. of Nursing Ainat Koren.

09/13/2021
By Ed Brennen

Manning School of Business graduate students Lani Faith Gacula ’21 and Wynn Wiggins ’18 spent several weeks this summer working in fields they knew little about, interviewing potential customers about products that don’t yet exist.

It was a unique experience that both say will prove valuable in their business careers.

While pursuing master's degrees in entrepreneurship, Gacula and Wiggins were the first Manning students to participate in the new I-Corps Intern Program.

I-Corps is shorthand for the National Science Foundation (NSF) Innovation Corps, a program designed to help faculty, researchers and students at leading research universities across the U.S. test the commercial potential of their research and ideas. 

Created a decade ago by the NSF, I-Corps was introduced on the UML campus in 2017, supported by a five-year grant of nearly $500,000. UML is an affiliate of the New England I-Corps node, which is based at MIT.

Tom O’Donnell, senior director of Innovation Initiatives and director of UML’s Innovation Hub, is the principal investigator of the I-Corps grant. Faculty overseeing the internship program are Marketing Prof. and Dept. Chair Yi Yang and Jack Wilson, distinguished professor of higher education, emerging technologies and innovation at UML.
A woman and a man smile for photos while on Zoom
As I-Corps interns, Manning School of Business students Lani Faith Gacula and Wynn Wiggins helped faculty researchers test the commercial potential of their products.

Yang says Gacula and Wiggins were recommended as interns thanks to their participation last spring in the Hacking for Defense (H4D) pilot course. Like H4D, I-Corps utilizes the “Lean LaunchPad” methodology, which involves proposing a hypothesis for a business opportunity and quickly testing assumptions through customer discovery and market research.

Gacula, an international student from the Philippines who is now pursuing her Ph.D. in entrepreneurship, worked with Assoc. Prof. of Nursing Ainat Koren, who researches the relationship between the time infants spend on their tummies and childhood obesity. Through I-Corps, Koren is looking to develop a device to promote infant activity.

Gacula’s job was to interview at least 25 new parents to learn what they value when it comes to the health and safety of their infants — without mentioning the device being developed. 
 
“The internship has highlighted the value of my education at UML. It enabled me to use my experience to help nurture innovative solutions to real-world problems,” says Gacula, who ended up interviewing 30 moms and dads, many of whom she connected with through parenting groups on Facebook. 

Gacula then presented her findings to Koren’s team, which includes nursing student Alexa DeVito and an outside consultant, chemical engineering alumna Lisa Dufresne ’85.
“Having this experience is definitely something that will help me.” -I-Corps intern Wynn Wiggins

“Lani did an outstanding job. She provided great market research,” Koren says. “You always think you know what other people want, but until you ask people more general questions, you never know what they really want.”

Wiggins, meanwhile, worked with Electrical Engineering Asst. Prof. Corey Shemelya and Plastics Engineering Asst. Prof. Davide Masato on their technology to embed printed electronics into plastic injection molded parts. 

After feedback from his initial interviews, Wiggins narrowed his focus to the health care industry, specifically pacemaker technology.

“I was diving into a field with no prior connections that I’m not well-versed in,” says Wiggins, a native of Burlington, Massachusetts, who earned a bachelor’s degree in history. “In the future, when we go out to interview people in the real world, I will be reaching out to technical people that I don’t have any connections to. Having this experience is definitely something that will help me.”

Wiggins worked with industry mentor and plastics engineering alumnus Tim Jozokos ’92, manager of plastics technology at Hyperion Catalysis International.

“Wynn’s work was helpful,” says Masato, who began collaborating with Shemelya on the technology after they met as new faculty members in the Francis College of Engineering in 2018. 

While many faculty researchers use I-Corps to get their technology closer to market and even spawn a company, Masato says that’s not their goal for now.

“Our goal is to continue to address the fundamental research questions, and I-Corps provided an opportunity to align our scientific objectives to industry application and relevant markets,” he says.

Accounting alumnus Stephen Buscema ’93 helps administer I-Corps through his work in UML’s New Venture Development office. He says faculty benefit from the program because it takes the products they are developing and helps them decide at an early stage whether to pivot, keep going or scrap the idea altogether.

“I’ve started a couple of companies, and I wish I had this program when I was younger, because I learned the hard way,” he says.

And for students, Buscema says I-Corps is a résumé builder.

“It’s getting people out of their comfort zone in a supportive environment,” he says. “The skill of asking for something or reaching out is something that students can use for the rest of their lives.”

With recent bipartisan support in Congress for increased NSF funding to spur innovation and technology commercialization, O’Donnell says the university is well positioned, thanks to programs like I-Corps.

“The program ties in very nicely with getting more of our technology from the labs into the real world,” he says. “We’re in a good spot.”