Last month, for the first time in 11 years, USC Associate Professor Ellis Meng found herself raising her hand and asking questions in the classroom - not answering them.
Meng, whose research at USC focuses on developing a tiny, implantable medication-delivery system, is enrolled in a business crash-course sponsored by the National Science Foundation, learning how to understand customers, develop viable business models, and get on the fast track to becoming a commercial product.
She was selected to receive the NSF's new Innovation Corps award. The award is designed to help researchers get innovative ideas out of the lab and into the real world.
"It's supposed to kick-start the effort," said Meng, who teaches biomedical and electrical engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.
A couple weeks ago, she and her team flew to Stanford University to attend a three-day business bootcamp.
"We were sort of fed through the firehose," Meng said. Now back in Los Angeles, she is continuing her education online. In December, Meng's team and 20 others that have been selected by the NSF will pitch their products and newly developed business strategies for marketing them to a room full of potential investors.
Meng's team was among the NSF's first cohort to receive the six-month, $50,000 award.
Each team includes a principle investigator, a student or post doc, and an industry mentor. Meng is working with Christian Gutierrez, a recent Viterbi PhD graduate; Tuan Hoang, a Viterbi lecturer; and Carol Christopher, an industry expert and mentor.
She joked that the program is designed to "help you fail quickly" - that is, to spend a minimum of time and resources figuring out whether a product being developed by a researcher has a potential to succeed commercially in a specific market, or whether it needs to be applied to a different market or reimagined.
The course has already offered useful insights into Meng's drug delivery pump, which is designed to address chronic conditions that require long term, localized use of drugs - such as cancer, epilepsy, and chronic pain.
Because of its tiny size - smaller in diameter than a dime, and as thick as a short stack of quarters - the pump can also be used in animal studies, unlike older designs.
Currently, similar pumps are bulky, which makes them difficult to implant inconspicuously, particularly in children. Meng's pump enjoys a much better volume efficiency, meaning that the bulk of the device is taken up by the medication it delivers, as opposed to complicated mechanical pumps or batteries.
Part of that is due to the fact that the pump does not require large batteries - it is the first drug pump that can be powered up and operated wirelessly. With the I-Corps award, Meng hopes to see her invention realized as a commercial product soon.
"The timing was perfect," she said. "I'm happy that the NSF is so forward thinking and pioneered a program like this. Through this effort, we can work together to make sure technologies are not orphaned in the laboratory."