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PhD Innovation Program Webinar Recording

Nov 26, 2019

A webinar with PhD Innovation Program director, Eric Fossum for students interested in this first-of-its-kind program designed to address the nation's vital need for scientists and engineers with both technical and entrepreneurial expertise.


Speaker: Eric Fossum

Professor Eric Fossum

This webinar is to talk about our PhD Innovation Program here at Dartmouth. I'm Eric Fossum and I'm a professor here, and I'm also director of the Program. And I'm also the associate provost for entrepreneurship and technology transfer, which is a full-time, part-time job. So I should tell you just a little bit about my background.

I used to work at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is part of Caltech out in Pasadena, California. When we were there, we were working on miniaturizing cameras for interplanetary spacecraft and wound up inventing this camera-on-a-chip technology. It allowed us to build cameras that are much, much smaller than used to be able to be built. And then we started a company out of JPL and grew that company for about six years, and then sold it to Micron, which was a happy exit. And of course you know that technology because it's in everybody's smartphone today and a lot of other places. There's about 6 billion cameras made every year using that technology and about 10 billion pictures uploaded every day.

"You might have some idea or some sort of a discovery. In the Innovation Program, we're looking at actually transferring that technology to make it useful for society."

I also ran another startup company for a MEMS devices for auto-focus but I wasn't the father of the technology in that case, I was just running the company. And then more recently we've done another spinoff out of Dartmouth with my PhD students called Gigajot and that's still a small company right now. So I'm really experienced in a number of places. I'm very glad to be back at Dartmouth. I came back here in 2010 and have been here ever since.

So the Innovation Program deals with this arc of technology innovation. Because usually you're doing research as a PhD student, you might have some idea or some sort of a discovery, and most normal PhD students, they write a paper and they're kind of done and they move on to the next thing. In the Innovation Program, we're looking at actually transferring that technology to make it useful for society. One of the ways to do that is intellectual property. Once you have some sort of intellectual property, you could do probably two different things. One is to license it somewhere else, which is great, because it gets used most of the time. And the other is to do a startup. And that's kind of what we're training you for in this program: how to do a startup successfully.

The Program is a regular PhD program where regular PhD world-class research is what's expected. But then we provide additional training for entrepreneurial endeavors. And as part of that training, you get three full years of fellowship funding, up to $10,000 a year, in additional research funds. And of course you're taking additional coursework, and get some experiential learning in innovation entrepreneurship.

The Program was launched by former Dean Helble and two other professors in 2008. I came in 2010 and became director of the Program. We expanded the Program to the Guarani Graduate School in 2019, so we're Dartmouth-wide now. One interesting thing is that in 2014 the National Academy of Engineering awarded the Gordon Prize to Dartmouth for creating an integrated program that goes from our undergraduates, graduates and up to prepare students for engineering leadership. And the Innovation Program was one of the key programs cited in that award. So it was a very prestigious award as well.

So now we get down into the details. On the left side is kind of what the normal course requirements look like for a PhD program, from eight to ten courses are required—some technical depth courses, some math proficiency courses and then some broader engineering courses. The PhD Innovation Program, which is on the right side, looks a lot like that—still four depth courses and a couple of math proficiency courses. But then we get into the, let's call it, the icing on the cake, the extra training for entrepreneurship. And there are a number of required courses for this. Starting usually in your second year is the Technology Innovation course, which I happen to teach. Then somewhere later you need to take a course in corporate finance and also a law class. And then somewhere around the fourth year you take another course, which is Advanced Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which at this time I also happen to teach.

This is more of, let's call it, a round-table, informal course where you work through an enterprise plan for a particular, let's call it, spin-out that you might want to create from the research you've been doing for the last three or four years and it may be real or may not be. It may be imaginary. Sometimes it starts out as a wish list, but then it becomes more real as you move along. And some students have actually started companies based on this process and it's kind of near the end of the program. We also have a track in surgical innovation. And that requires some more classes as well. You actually go to the hospital and you observe surgeries for a about a year, a couple of days a week.

Below is a diagram of the PhD Innovation Program funding. So in the regular PhD Program for, let's say, you're in it for five years, your advisor has a project and the funding that your advisor receives for that project pays for your tuition, your stipend and health insurance. And you pretty much work for your advisor as an employee in a way, or apprentice, and learn how to do research over that process over the five years. The Innovation Program, we start it the same way in year one. Year two, you're still working directly for your adviser as an apprentice, but the PhD Innovation Program is kicking in 50% of the funding.

"Starting in year three, you can get up to $10,000 per year in additional research funding. And in years four and five is a 100% Innovation Program fellowship."

Third year is kind of where you start to understand how to do research a little bit. And you start to perhaps formulate your own ideas based on what's going on in your advisor's lab—some other things you want to explore that may have commercial potential and the Innovation Program still pays for 50% of your tuition stipend. Your advisor is still paying the other half, but also starting in year three, you can get up to $10,000 per year in additional research funding. And in years four and five is a 100% Innovation Program fellowship.

"Computer science and surgical robots?" Yeah, it could be a surgical track. It could be through Guarini as well perhaps. Since computer science is not part of the engineering school. But you could potentially come in through Guarini and do the surgical innovation track, I think. It kind of depends on who your advisor is as well. If you happen to be computer science, but your advisor's engineering, then maybe it's eligible. We haven't had to deal with that yet.

"Should you apply for computer science?" If you're wanting to do computer science definitely you should apply to the computer science department, which is part of arts and sciences in the Guarini School.

So moving on then, we also have this new Magnuson Center for Entrepreneurship as an additional resource. This is a newly endowed center, even though it's existed for a few years now in sort of a pilot basis. And we do support for undergraduates, but also startup support for graduate students and faculty.

You can engage with alumni. We have a huge alumni base that's entrepreneurially inclined. We do a meeting every year. For example, we had about 600 entrepreneurial alums that came in attendance. Quite a meeting. I'd never seen anything like it before. And they're very energetic and enthusiastic, and very willing to help new entrepreneurs as well. So it's a big support system for us.

We also work sometimes with the so-called DALI Lab, which came out of computer science. And this is also another resource.

Statistics. So we tend to admit a maximum of five to seven students each year. That's a budget restriction. These tend to be very highly qualified PhD students and the Innovation Program students represent about 15% of our PhD program. The admitted students come from outside Dartmouth and also come from inside the regular PhD program. So you're already here for a year and then you apply to it, for example. And the ratio between external applicants and internal applicants is about 50/50.

So far we've had about 25 graduates from the program, about 32% women. Of these 25 graduates, ten have founded startups. And a total of 14 are involved with startups at this time. Currently there are 26 students in the program including the new Guarini program. There's 11 women in two active startups going on. We have a very active engagement also with the Tuck Entrepreneurship Program. Tuck is our business school just recently ranked the number two school in the country by Forbes. I think that's correct. And I mentioned already the Magnuson Center as well as the iCore Program.

Some student examples of startups are listed here. On the left is Sproxil. Ashifi Gogo was our first PhD Innovation Program student and he is fighting counterfeit health products and other high tech products in Africa and India with his company, Sproxil. On the right side is Justice Amoh who is working on breathing detection for children using both acoustic technology and artificial intelligence to check when there may be a problem or an issue coming up. This is a wearable monitor. Lower left in the center is Danielle Castley. She did a startup on shielding materials for radiation environments called Neutroelectric. And I should mention that Justice on top right won the Top Startup Competition at Dartmouth last year and came away with $52,000 and change for his startup company [Clairways]. Danielle went international with her competition. She went to Abu Dhabi and won a top prize at their pitch competition, and won $50,000 for her startup. So quite impressive just even in the past year, what our students are doing.

"Are the number of students involved dependent on department subject?" Yeah, it's open to all subjects in the engineering school and all departments at Guarini. But the Guarini application process is a bit different than the Thayer process. And also we require an internship so you got industry experience.

A nice picture of some of our current fellows taken a few weeks ago here at Thayer.

Group photo of Dartmouth's 2019 PhD Innovation Fellows

My last slide before going to questions is the application process. So this is what I recommend. First of all, the deadline is January 1st. So you have to do the first couple steps before then. But look for professors online that you might want to work with at Thayer. If you find that there's some synergy, contact them and try to visit if you can.

But you can also visit after you do your application, because there's not much time left. Apply to the regular PhD program at Thayer and also do the PhD Innovation Program supplemental application as well. As I said, the deadline is January 1st. So we will wind up selecting about 10 finalists. That's typically about one in three or one in four of all applications. And we'll do an in-person or a web video interview of those finalists, and select five or six. And we'll have that completed by mid to end of February and you'll be notified for a fall 2020 start.

"Are the number of students involved dependent on department subject?" Yes.

"Do applicants need to have established contact with a professor they want to work with even before they apply to the program?" It's not required. But at Dartmouth, the individual professors do the admissions on the general PhD program. So if they have no clue who you are, never talked to you, it's less likely they'll just admit you off of a piece of paper. So I do recommend that you contact them.

"Would it be one professor for the regular PhD program and another for the Innovation Program?" No, it's usually the same advisor for both cases. And you need an advisor, because you have to do a world-class dissertation and you just do one dissertation. But with the Innovation Program and funding, that dissertation can be a little more applied or slightly more development-oriented than you might normally find in dissertation research that's funded by, say, National Science Foundation or NIH, because of the requirements of those grants and contracts. So you want to have the same professor for both the Innovation Program and your regular PhD program.

I asked two of the current Innovation Program students to come up and talk for a couple minutes. It's Alison Burklund and Cameron Planck. Talk about who you are, why you came to Dartmouth, and what you're working on, and how wonderful it all is.

Speaker: Cameron Planck

Cameron Planck

Hi everybody. My name's Cameron Planck. I am a fifth year Innovation student now. I study climate change of Arctic sea ice and I actually came here from Oregon State University where I graduated with a bachelor of science in mechanical engineering. I came here to work with a completely different professor who's actually left the institution, but ended up getting looped into geo science, geophysics, and that being a little bit out of my realm of interest and expertise, I started looking for ways to get some engineering into my work. And the Innovation Program has allowed me to both study climate science—real sciency fundamental science stuff—but then also have a lot of engineering and design, and manufacturing components in my work. And that's been primarily enabled through a different funding source that the Innovation Program provides.

So as professor Fossum said, if you continue, if you're in the Innovation Program, you're freed up a little bit from your advisor in terms of funding, especially in your later years. And that can allow you to pursue different avenues of research or development that you might not normally be able to. And I've just been super grateful for that. It's allowed me to really be able to pursue a lot of my interests here and contribute to my field in a way that I don't think I would be able to without it.

I started a company in 2017 called Cryosphere Innovation, and we make products that observe the Arctic sea ice cover remotely. And that's been really fun and a huge challenge, but also really rewarding and very interesting. I've learned a lot through the process of starting the company and running the company, but I also was prepared to do all of that through the coursework that I had to take, or was lucky enough to take through the Innovation Program—namely, corporate finance, law technology, entrepreneurship. And then the capstone Innovation course that we do with Professor Fossum. That is a year-long course where you put an entire enterprise plan together. It really, really helps a lot.

Speaker: Alison Burklund

Alison Burklund

I think one question popped up: "Would it be one professor for the regular PhD and another professor for the Innovation Program?" The answer to that is, generally no. You have one faculty advisor for the duration of your PhD as is typical on a PhD program. But we also have Dr. Fossum as a resource and a mentor throughout the education, entrepreneurship, and any potential interest in a startup.

So let me back up. My name's Alison Burklund, I'm a fourth-year Innovation student. I'm working broadly on infectious disease diagnostics. So I'm in the med tech / biotech space. I came to Dartmouth specifically because of the Innovation Program. And prior I attended Johns Hopkins where I got a degree in chemical engineering, and then a master's at UC Berkeley where I got a degree in bioengineering. So the selling point for me for Dartmouth was the Innovation Program, and it has not disappointed.

I'll talk specifically about the collaboration that we're working to build with Tuck. So Tuck is right next door to us. So it's only natural that some type of collaboration should follow between this program and the great resource that's Tuck. So one of the first initiatives we did was build a program called the Early Project Exchange where Thayer students can submit ideas or technologies they've been working on, and basically get free help from MBA candidates to either define a market or build a website—basically all the non-technical stuff that bogs our work down and keeps us away from the science. The Tuck students enjoy that and they're a great resource for learning about that side of things as well.

"How common is it for students to take remedial coursework if their undergrad STEM degree is different?"

Speaker: Cameron Planck

"Dartmouth is very, very good with helping you be successful. They want you to be successful. That's definitely the ethos of this school."

That's actually a really great question. And that is something that we run into a lot at Thayer. Thayer is a little different than many other engineering schools in that many of the students that study here in the doctoral programs don't actually have engineering degrees. Many of them have degrees in science, whether it's chemistry, biology, et cetera. And that is just because of the diverse research that goes on here. So in general, it's common, I would say probably mostly in math, for students to come in a little bit light sometimes. And there are lots of courses you can take to help boost that. It's actually a requirement, of the eight to ten courses that you have to take, at least two of them have to be math. Many of the other ones will have lots of math in them. So it's really common, definitely. And Thayer supports people who come from a wide range of backgrounds.

I'll add one quick thing to Alison's comment about tech transfer, and patent ownership, and profit sharing and all that. And I just want to say that Dartmouth in general, of the schools that I'm sure many of you are looking at, is very, very good with helping you be successful. They're not, in my opinion, in my experience, a school to take your money and run or take your ownership or your property, or I guess their property, and run with it. They want you to be successful. So that's definitely the ethos of this school, I would say.

Speaker: Alison Burklund

I would also echo that because of the size of the school. We're a small PhD program. We actually have the ability to interact with the people that are creating these policies. So there's always some degree of flexibility when the school wants you to succeed and you have the support of the school behind you.

I also recently started a startup with a fellow colleague in the Innovation Program who is not here today. We're just applying for funding now. The startup is working to develop rapid diagnostics for bloodstream infections, very broadly.

Speaker: Eric Fossum

You guys did a great job. So just about the tech transfer. Actually at my other job, the tech transfer office reports to me, and we have a pretty standard kind of startup arrangement. Your startup can get an exclusive license—assuming that you meet certain criteria like you're serious you actually have a business plan—for about a 4% equity stake. And you have to pay back anything we've paid out of pocket for patent fees to lawyers, and things like that. And then you have to continue to do good with your technology. But it'd be an exclusive license, which I think is probably—for faculty and for our graduate students—one of the most generous policies in the country.

"Is there any additional requirements expected from international candidates besides standardized test scores?" Well, we do require good communication skills and a high quality institution, high quality undergraduate background.

"Average GPA?" It's got to be high. It depends a little bit on the school that you went to. There are numbers that we consider threshold numbers for our PhD program. Generally, our Innovation Program students are well above our threshold.

"Number of applicants each year?" It depends. Between internal and external applications, I wouldn't be surprised that we have about 40 to 50 this next term.

"Publications?" Yes. Dartmouth requires that you have at least one publication in an archival journal, first author paper published before you are able to graduate. This is pretty normal. But that happens. Although some students kind of just do it in the nick of time.

"Can you can be accepted to the PhD program, but not the Innovation Program?" Yes. You certainly can. If you're accepted into the Innovation Program, you're automatically in the regular PhD program as well. But students that are not admitted to the Innovation Program may or may not be admitted to the regular PhD program. It depends now on the individual advisors whether they want to select you as part of their team or not. And that happens from about January 1st through March, or something like that. And again, that's where a contact with a professor is important. And that's also where visiting Dartmouth—I believe we provide some travel assistance—is a good idea. Highly recommended.

I want to thank everybody out there for joining us. And if you have any questions, you have the information for reaching Holly as a first stop.

"How do I book a visit?" Contact Holly. That will be the best thing.

Goodbye and hope to see you here next year.


Holly Wilkinson

Contact Holly Wilkinson, Assistant Dean for Academic and Student Affairs at or call +1 (603) 646-3483.