Federal Innovation Program Expands, Builds On Track Record of Success

As part of a new federal innovation initiative, UNLV can now draw on the expertise of seven other major Western universities as it works to bring campus-driven economic development to Southern Nevada.

Earlier this month, the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced the expansion of its Innovation Network, which the federal agency says “empowers researchers and entrepreneurs across the country to learn how to bring innovation research to the marketplace.”

The NSF created five additional university-based Innovation Corps (I-Corps) regional hubs to provide entrepreneurial training to academic researchers across all fields of science and engineering. UNLV joins the Desert and Pacific Hub, one of 10 across the country that work to foster an “inclusive innovation ecosystem throughout the US”

“UNLV has been involved with the Innovation Corps since 2017, and it has a track record of success,” says Leith Martin, who oversees the program as executive director of the Troesh Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in the Lee Business School.

The creation of the hub allows for more collaboration among the component universities and “we will be able to as a group leverage mentorship across the institutions,” Martin says. “Over time we create clusters of assets and clusters of expertise that’s developed in certain areas,” such as water management, a vital topic throughout the West.

Participation in I-Corps helps researchers stress test their ideas by working with interdisciplinary teams that provide insight into the strength of the concept and whether a market exists.

In 2019, the air-quality startup Promethium, which was founded by a pair of UNLV engineering students, received an I-Corps grant that helped fund development of their commercial air-filtration system.

“The grant allowed us to prototype a project in one of our garages,” says Promethium Chief Technology Officer Devon Scheg. “I-Corps provided the initial spark that got us off the ground.”

Scheg, a 2019 graduate of UNLV’s Howard R. Hughes College of Engineering, says the I-Corps process is “a lot easier than people think it is,” and he encourages others to apply.

“These resources exist to help people with great ideas who want to take it to the next level,” says Scheg, who, along with his fellow Promethium founders, shared in the inaugural Lee School Prize for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. The company has continued to grow and is currently pursuing Series A investment financing.

Martin says efforts such as I-Corps and the UNLV Innovation Incubator Powered by Hughes Center, which turns a year old this month, can bring new thinking to campus.

“If we can teach STEM faculty and students the tools for commercialization we can change the culture of research,” he says.

Along with UNLV, the Desert and Pacific Hub includes: Arizona State University, lead institution for the hub; Boise State University; Northern Arizona University; University of Arizona; University of California, San Diego; University of Hawaii; and University of Idaho.

UNLV’s inclusion in the regional hub “not only confirms its role in economic development and innovation advancement, but brings additional resources to bear to enable that important role and further its mission,” says ASU Knowledge Enterprise Vice President Ji Mi Choi, who will serve as director of the hub.

As part of the regional hub, UNLV will share in $15 million in federal research funding over the next five years.

The NSF launched the Innovation Corps in 2011 with the mission of providing a thorough and rapid assessment of an invention’s market potential. Congress expanded the program in 2017 with the creation of the National Innovation Network. The initial five regional hubs were created last year.

Those interested in participating in I-Corps can find more information on UNLV’s NSF I-Corps webpage.

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