URI engineer awarded prestigious grant to help turn his invention into successful start-up company

NSF Innovation Corps provides guidance, motivation, contacts

KINGSTON, R.I. – December 7, 2011 – Walt Besio has invented a unique electrode that can detect brain signals that are four times weaker than those currently used in electroencephalogram (EEG) equipment for the diagnosis and treatment of neurological disorders. But after filing a patent application on the invention, Besio found that creating a company to make and market it is much more difficult than he anticipated.

To guide him through that process, the University of Rhode Island biomedical engineering professor has been awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation to be in the first class of the Innovation Corps, a rigorous program at Stanford University designed to transition promising research from the laboratory to the commercial market.

“When most engineers and scientists come up with an idea, they keep working on it and working on it to perfect it, which is what I’ve been doing,” Besio said. “The business model I’m learning through the I-Corps is getting me out of my lab and forcing me to seek out potential customers and partners and those that are going to sell and use my invention. We’re supposed to do all of that up front instead of after we have a final product. ”

The 8-week program began with a week of classes at Stanford in October followed by regular 4-hour conference calls and weekly assignments. Every week he has to meet 10 to 15 people who could have an impact on his business plan.

“The old ways of starting a business don’t work any more,” Besio said. “This new accelerated business model will help me start a company from my technology and save people’s lives. That has always been my dream.”

Each of the 21 I-Corps grantees were required to identify a business mentor who could participate fully in the program and an “entrepreneurial lead” who would run the company after it is formed. Besio chose Jim Petell, URI assistant vice president for research and intellectual property, as his business mentor and Xiang Liu, a doctoral student who has been working with Besio to improve the electrode since 2008, as his entrepreneurial lead.

“The I-Corps is a new vehicle for helping universities get their intellectual property into the marketplace,” said Petell, who has worked in the corporate sector for many years helping businesses turn inventions into products. “It’s all about getting you to think differently about the things you need to do to build a successful business.”

After the course is over later this month, Besio and his team will have a roadmap for how to proceed in finding partners and funding.

“It will just be a matter of executing that roadmap,” Petell said. “But the big hurdles for us will be to find those clinicians and companies willing to be the first to adopt the technology and put it into the marketplace.”

Besio said that there is so much to do every day for the I-Corps project that it is difficult to keep up with his teaching and research schedule. But if he can maintain the pace until the middle of December when the program ends, he is confident he will have a strong business model on which to base his company.

“At the end of it all, if we’ve put the effort in, we’ll have a company and a product that will make it to market and venture capitalists ready to give us funding,” Besio said. “That will be our reward.”