Dartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of EngineeringDartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of Engineering

Engineering Entrepreneurs

Thayer’s five-year-old Ph.D. Innovation Program prepares students for an enterprising future.

By Kathryn LoConte Lapierre
Photographs by Douglas Fraser

When Thayer School debuted the Ph.D. Innovation Program five years ago in 2008, it created a novel solution to a national challenge: how to develop leaders with both technical and entrepreneurial expertise.

In the program, launched by Dean Joseph Helble, students complete all the requirements of a traditional Ph.D., plus specialized studies that prepare them to build an enterprise based on technical innovation.

“Students learn about intellectual property, funding, capitalization, cash-flow issues, how to operate a business, management practices, ethics, how to hire a good team, how to balance an organization, and how to be a leader,” says the program’s faculty coordinator, Professor Eric Fossum, an inventor, entrepreneur, and CEO with decades of experience commercializing technologies.

In courses such as ENGM 180: “Corporate Finance” and ENGM 188: “Law, Technology, and Entrepreneurship,” Innovation Program students learn about patents, intellectual property, contracts, copyright, and trademarks. They learn the language of business.

In the capstone course ENGG 321: “Introduction to Innovation,” Innovation Program students go through the steps of creating their own startup. “If a student has the opportunity to do something entrepreneurial, understanding how business works—how technology and innovation really go from an idea to a product—is important. It’s critical that they have the knowledge of how the whole process comes together,” says Fossum.

The opportunities—and demands—of ENGG 321 are widespread. The course requires students to serve on review panels for the undergraduate course ENGS 21: “Introduction to Engineering.” It involves a heavy reading load and numerous one-on-one conversations with Fossum, a National Inventor’s Hall of Fame inductee whose CMOS imaging system made digital cameras ubiquitous. Students also meet other successful entrepreneurs.

And in ENGG 321 students identify a particular technology and go through what it would take to create an enterprise that is based on that innovation, from start to finish. “They identify strengths and weaknesses. They build a market forecast and a real strategy for getting the technology to market,” says Fossum. “They have to show what the whole product really is, which means more than just the widget but also how to use it and the know-how that has to be sold along with it. They develop a five-year financial plan, which includes not only manufacturing costs, but also the infrastructure—everything from salaries and HR managers down to desks and chairs.”

For some students ENGG 321 is an opportunity to work on real startups. For others it’s a preparatory exercise for the future. For all it’s a step in developing a succinct pitch for selling their technology.

An internship, in which students work in a startup company—possibly their own—or in an R&D department in their field of interest for up to six months, is also part of the program. “It’s very good for them to get experience in an existing company, to learn how things are done and how people think. It exposes them to new ideas and sharpens their vision of what they want to do, what kind of enterprise they want to create,” says Fossum.

The Innovation Program takes an enterprising approach to funding as well as studies. Students receive five years of support, spending their first two years working in their advisor’s lab and the next three years exploring their own ideas.

So far, 13 students have participated in the program. Two of the earliest have already established successful companies: Ashifi Gogo Th’09 ’10, founder of the counterfeit-drug-detecting company Sproxil, and Dax Kepshire Th’07 ’09, cofounder of the isothermal compressed-air energy-storage company SustainX.

“While the students here are all on different trajectories, they all catch the entrepreneurial bug,” says Fossum. “We’re small and flexible enough to tailor the program to each individual student’s needs and backgrounds. It’s a really fantastic opportunity.”

Below, eight Ph.D. Innovation Program students tell us how the program has changed them and prepared them for an inventive future.

Alicia Petryk ’06 Th’07 ’08 ’13

RESEARCH ADVISOR: Professor Jack Hoopes

Alicia Petryk RESEARCH: We are working on developing iron-oxide nanoparticles—very small crystals of iron oxide in a biocompatible coding—as a cancer therapy. When iron-oxide nanoparticles are exposed to an alternating magnetic field, they produce very localized heat. Because they are so small and can be internalized by tumor cells, we can deliver a focused and controlled thermal dose. I’ve been combining this treatment with chemotherapy.

STARTUP IDEA: For my ENGG 321 project I looked at using iron-oxide nanoparticles for female sterilization. I already knew a lot of the science, but the project made me think about it as a small business, exploring what resources I had and what would be necessary before I could make it a reality.

WHY THE INNOVATION PROGRAM: I wanted to build upon what I had learned in the Master of Engineering Management (M.E.M.) program. Engineers should understand patent law and intellectual property. If you want your great idea to actually help people, then you’re going to have to figure out how to make it into a viable business.

INTERNSHIP: For my internship, I wrote a grant with a small business that our lab was collaborating with. The company was applying for a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant for imaging nanoparticles for cancer treatment on large animals. In Hanover I’m actually doing the research and treating oral tumors in dogs [see “The Power of Small Cures”]. My biggest takeaway was seeing how the company makes big decisions. They spent a lot of time gathering data, looking at market reports, and talking to people. Figuring out the correct move for the business is a long and drawn-out process. It’s both exciting and scary.

TAKE-AWAYS: What I’ve learned has already started to help me. Our lab has applied for a provisional patent. Having the Innovation Program experience made me much more prepared and confident in my understanding of how patent law works—or how one might write about or present such a technology in a medical setting. If I had to do that for real now, I would be prepared.

Watch Alicia discuss why she chose the Ph.D. Innovation Program and her work with developing iron-oxide nanoparticles—very small crystals of iron oxide in a biocompatible coding—as a cancer therapy.

Steven Reinitz ’09 Th’09

RESEARCH ADVISOR: Professor Douglas Van Citters

Steven Reinitz RESEARCH: I’m looking at improving ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene, the material used as a bearing surface in artificial knee and hip implants. Ideally you want material that won’t change, crack, or wear through over time in the body. We’re using a new polymer-processing technique developed here at Thayer called equal channel angular extrusion (ECAE). We tangle the polyethylene in knots to improve its wear resistance without sacrificing its mechanical properties and biocompatibility. My thesis work is optimizing and validating the technique to make sure that it’s scalable for industry.

STARTUP IDEA: My Innovation Program work stemmed from my Bachelor of Engineering project, in which my team worked with Dr. Corey Burchman at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center on preventing hospital-acquired infections and IV-line contamination. We developed a medical device that uses IV in an optimized flow pattern to sterilize the fluid before it reaches the patient. That project led us to start B.B.R. Medical Innovations Inc. to produce the device [see “Spotlights”].

WHY THE INNOVATION PROGRAM: When we decided to form the company, we had no idea what to do next. We had the engineering and the medical background but no business or legal background. I wanted to get exposure to the business side of things. I talk about the Innovation Program in my business pitch to show why we make sense as a team: our team has the medical, biotech, and law background, and I’m honing the engineering and business skills. Through the program I also have access to everyone at Thayer, Tuck, and the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network. All of those resources give a new startup a lot better chance of succeeding. As engineers we get good at the technology, but in the business world the most important skill to succeed is the ability to network and talk with people. And as an engineer whose comfort zone is in the lab, that is a really hard thing to do. The Innovation Program has given me those skills.

TAKE-AWAYS: I learned very quickly that there is an art to knowing what needs to go into a good pitch. The single most useful thing that I’ve gotten out of the Innovation Program was the enterprise plan-writing portion of ENGG 321 and the slide deck that I finished. It’s ready to go. I can take it anywhere and have my pitch to try to sell my idea.

Watch Steven discuss why he chose the Ph.D. Innovation Program and his research on preventing hospital-acquired infections and IV-line contamination, as well as founding his company, B.B.R. Medical Innovations Inc.

Austin Boesch

RESEARCH ADVISOR: Professor Margie Ackerman

Austin Boesch RESEARCH: Our lab focuses on understanding how antibody variants interact with the immune system with the aim of developing more potent vaccine immunogens and antibody therapies. Antibodies bind antigens on pathogens, such as viruses or diseased cells, and act as molecular beacons for the immune system to bring in effector cells that can kill diseased cells. Antibodies also bind receptors on effector cells, creating bridges between the two cell types. When enough bridges form, the effector cell releases toxins that lead to the death of the diseased cell. This process is called antibody-dependent cellular cytotoxicity. I am developing a mathematical model to describe this and other cellular processes. With a mathematical framework for these processes we can optimize therapeutic strategies for cancer or even gain better insight into the types of antibodies most effective at preventing or eliminating HIV infection.

STARTUP IDEA: Before I entered the Innovation Program, my former boss and I invented a new technology for selectively separating antibodies that are 10–100x more effective at killing cancer cells. The company I worked for was not interested in pursuing the technology, as developing purification products was not a part of their core business. Therefore, we worked with the company to get the patent rights assigned to my startup, Zepteon Inc. As part of the Innovation Program I hope to work in a similar space developing a panel of purification technologies that could provide immediately value to pharmaceutical companies.

WHY THE INNOVATION PROGRAM: This is a great opportunity to learn the language of business and get the toolkit necessary to function in industry as an entrepreneur. Businesses want engineers who can immediately translate their research from academia into the industrial realm, and the Innovation Program puts an emphasis on this skill. We are the flagship school for it, and I think that more schools are going to follow our lead.

INTERNSHIP: I have applied for Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants from the federal government, and if approved, those could fund me so that I can work at my own startup company.

TAKE-AWAYS: I’m already applying some of what I’ve learned. Before I came here, I didn’t know where to start when it came to forming a business. Learning about where to incorporate, how to protect intellectual property, how to make the right decisions when choosing an attorney, and how to come up with a strategy is so valuable. The Innovation Program’s fundamentals give engineers a leg up for the future.

Watch Austin talk about why he chose the Ph.D. Innovation Program and his research focusing on how antibody variants interact with the immune system with the aim of developing more potent vaccine immunogens and antibody therapies.

Daniel Harburg Dual Degree ’06 Th’09

RESEARCH ADVISOR: Professor Charles Sullivan

Daniel Harburg RESEARCH: My research focuses on designing and building micro-scale magnetic components for electrical power conversion systems. We’re collaborating with three other universities to build smaller, more efficient, and lower cost power converters for applications in solid-state lighting and handheld electronics.

STARTUP IDEA: I’ve been investigating the smart phone market to learn how our power conversion research would be best integrated into the existing supply chain. Today almost 30 percent of a smart phone’s circuit board is taken up by power conversion components. Our miniaturized converters could free up space within the phone for a larger battery to improve run time or for advanced features.

WHY THE INNOVATION PROGRAM: I’m interested in the application of interdisciplinary academic research to solve big problems. In order to collaborate in a meaningful way, innovators have to speak the languages of business, law, and technology, among others. The Innovation Program has allowed me to begin learning these critical languages.

INTERNSHIP: I’ll be working with a startup that is developing electronic systems that can biodegrade after a specific amount of time. These systems could be embedded within the body to perform important tasks before dissolving harmlessly into the body. Silicon-based electronics have traditionally been built to last as long as possible; we’re turning that thinking upside down to consider situations in which it may be useful to have electronics that disappear.

TAKE-AWAYS: One of the things I’ve found most surprising is how little communication there is between engineering and business people, and how poorly these communities often view one another. We need innovators who can think from multiple perspectives and bridge the divide between the academic and corporate communities that are so often segregated. Breakthrough innovation happens at the intersection of disciplines; the Innovation Program is well-poised to equip students with the skills they need to create disruptive teams.

Watch Daniel discuss why he chose the Ph.D. Innovation Program and his research focusing on designing and building micro-scale magnetic components for electrical power conversion systems.

Geneva Trotter

RESEARCH ADVISOR: Professor Ian Baker

Geneva Trotter RESEARCH: I’m working on novel high-temperature austenitic alloys for energy conversion applications. The right alloys would allow the construction of power plants that operate at higher temperature, are more efficient, and are more environmentally friendly due to decreased CO2 emission.

WHY THE INNOVATION PROGRAM: I wanted to gain the knowledge base necessary to take ownership of any technological innovations I work on in the future. Professor Fossum and other entrepreneurs provide us with encouragement and the necessary straight talk we need to hear so we’re better equipped to take on future challenges.

STARTUP IDEA: For ENGG 321 I proposed a company that would provide coal-fired power plants with enhanced and low-cost tubing based on a novel Laves-phase-strengthened steel. The goal was to help meet energy industry needs nationally, with an outlook to expanding abroad. I analyzed market demands, gained insight into the current energy landscape, and was able to talk with key individuals who contribute to and impact the coal-fired power-plant industry.

TAKE-AWAYS: I’m learning things that will help me for whatever business I might decide to work in. Sitting with people who have actually brought something to fruition, I’ve learned about the sacrifices and judgments they’ve made along the way. When you hear the stories, it’s always just, “Oh, and they invented this.” But it’s not that simple. There are a lot of steps involved. There are people who contribute to your success. The program is helping me decide where I want to go with my research and how to plan my future projects.

Harrison Hall

RESEARCH ADVISOR: Professor Laura Ray

Harrison Hall RESEARCH: We are trying to enable real-time visualization of joint positioning in the in-situ environment using sensors, cell phones, and artificial learning techniques.

There is a big divide in both physical therapy rehab and sports training in terms of what your body appears to be doing and what it is actually doing. I’m looking at wearable sensors that detect movement—specifically joint activation—to reconstruct kinematic 3D body position in real time and transmit it to a cell phone or store it in the cloud, in order to give helpful feedback to rehab patients and athletes. I’ve also been researching ADHD diagnosis. Boys aged 8–13 who have been diagnosed with ADHD have 2.3 times the head motion of boys who do not have ADHD. Motion sensors that measure how much their heads move relative to their classmates could be used as a diagnostic tool.

STARTUP IDEA: I’ve been focusing on trying to get 3D kinematics in real-time from wearable sensors. I see two end-game strategies. One is to partner with a company that has been outfitting shirts to NFL athletes that measure heart rate, respiration, and gross acceleration of the body; I am trying to do more specific body 3D kinematics repositioning. The second is to go to the medical side and develop either a garment or discreet sensors that patients can wear on the wrist, elbow, or knee so physical therapists can see what the patient is actually doing and respond appropriately if the patient is in distress.

WHY THE INNOVATION PROGRAM: A lot of schools were hesitant to take on a pure computer scientist for an engineering role. Dartmouth let me design my own program and do the research I want, overseen by my professor but without more direction than I wanted. I would like to start a company at some point and want to develop some business acumen here.

TAKE-AWAYS: A lot of the great companies that have come out in the last decade or so were started by engineers who hired someone to do their finances. If I do start a company, I want to maintain a leadership role.

Watch Harrison discuss why he chose the the Ph.D. Innovation Program and his research in real-time visualization of joint positioning in the in-situ environment using sensors, cell phones, and artificial learning techniques.

Matt Pallone ’07 Th’13

RESEARCH ADVISOR: Professor Keith Paulsen

Matt Pallone RESEARCH: I was an undergrad here at Dartmouth and then transitioned into the master’s program. At that time, Professors Keith Paulsen and Paul Meaney had developed a clinical microwave imaging system for breast cancer. They worked on increasing the resolution of the images by integrating an optical scanner into the microwave system, so that they could position the patient correctly and know exactly where the patient was relative to the microwave antenna array that they used to image. I was brought on to develop that optical scanner, which I integrated into the existing system. When I transitioned into the Ph.D. program, I started looking at real-time image registration with preoperative MRIs and intraoperative optical scanning of the patient. Surgeons look at mammograms or MRI images before surgery, but patients are usually in a completely different position in the operating room than they were for the imaging. So what the surgeon sees in the operating room is different in shape and size from what they see in the pre-op images. We’re trying to provide real-time image registration so surgeons can have accurate 3D images during surgery.

STARTUP IDEA: I looked at the potential market value for integrating optical scanners into surgical planning. One focus was reducing the number of times a patient has to go in for a second or third surgery because part of the tumor was missed. We compared how many surgeries were done per year and looked at the equivalent market share based on that. It was a good exercise in terms of learning what it takes to start a company, get funding, or even think about startup costs and salaries. The research was at too early a stage to progress it into a startup company. However, we have a few patents for the technology, and ultimately it could go in that direction.

WHY THE INNOVATION PROGRAM: I like the idea of not just staying on the research and development side of devices, but actually seeing the whole process from start to finish. Early on in the program we talk about what innovation is. It’s not just getting an idea for an invention and saying, “I’m the CEO,” and going and developing the company. It’s sitting down and hashing out what it takes on the research side of things to develop this idea. On the business side, it’s taking something from early-stage funding to a marketable device. I knew that this program would be a great opportunity to get exposure to the business side of things and that’s what drew me to it.

INTERNSHIP: I worked with a company, Mobile Medical International Corp., in St. Johnsbury, Vt., that makes mobile operating suites. I was brought in to look at opportunities in the United Kingdom, focusing on the different regulations and updating the existing systems so that they would be functional there.

TAKE-AWAYS: Learning to see things from a business side early on and in an academic setting is really advantageous for those of us who want to learn to communicate between the head of business and the head of research to bridge that gap.

Regina Salvat

RESEARCH ADVISOR: Professor Karl Griswold

Regina Salvat RESEARCH: I try to make therapeutic proteins that can evade the immune system. Many proteins now used in protein therapies trigger an immune response that quickly clears them from the body, making the treatment less effective—and sometimes even dangerous. Our goal is to give these therapies a longer time in the body by removing the things that trigger the immune response. I look at a protein, Beta-lactamase, that is used in a cancer therapy called Antibody Directed Enzyme Prodrug Therapy (ADEPT). In ADEPT, an antibody that is attached to an enzyme specifically targets tumor cells. The chemotherapy happens only at the site of the tumor cell, so you have a lot fewer bad side effects.

STARTUP IDEA: For my ENGG 321 class, I developed a biotech company that would de-immunize therapeutic proteins for large pharmaceutical companies. I went through the process of determining our costs and how much we could sell the service for, and I thought through the entire business plan. It is something I originally did for class, but I am interested in biotech startups, and the class helped me think about them in ways that I never thought of before.

WHY THE INNOVATION PROGRAM: Before Dartmouth I worked in a pharmaceutical company and was really interested in how the business decisions were made. When I heard about this program, which incorporates business classes with the engineering Ph.D., I thought this would be the perfect place for me. In biotech engineering you’re really close to the engineering problems that you are trying to solve. Now, having been in this program, when I think about these questions and problems, I think about them from a completely different approach than I would have when I first joined the program.

TAKE-AWAYS: From my coursework, I have learned a lot about the business world. Professor Fossum and Professor Tillman Gerngross, a biotech innovator, have pushed me to understand the biotech industry from the business perspective rather than just the engineering perspective. Once I leave this program, I’ll have a much better understanding of how the biotech world fits into the business world and why certain decisions are being made about mergers, acquisitions, and startups, and how companies get funded through venture capitalists and other sources. Those are all tools that I didn’t have when I first came to the program.

Watch Regina discuss why she chose the Ph.D. Innovation Program and her research in de-immunizing therapeutic proteins for cancer therapy.

Zhiyuan Wang

RESEARCH ADVISOR: Professor Jifeng Liu

Zhiyuan Wang RESEARCH: My research focuses on integrated photonics. This is a technology that can be used in next generation computers. In the past people have used electrons for both data computing and transmissions and now people want to move to using photons, which will make data transmission faster with less energy consumption. During this communication, people have to use a light source for signals and they also have to use light detectors to read the signals. Recent progress in nanotechnology has helped us to trap and detect light on a smaller scale than ever. Right now I am using these techniques to fabricate a new type of light detector with higher sensitivity, faster response, and lower cost.

Watch Zhiyuan Wang talk about why he chose the Ph.D. Innovation Program and his research in integrated photonics.

Song Chen

RESEARCH ADVISOR: Professor Eric Fossum

Song Chen RESEARCH: I’m working on a project named Digital Integration Sensors. The basic idea has to do with the pixel size of the image sensor. It keeps shrinking down and as that happens, the less charge we can store in the pixel. In the industry they are trying to shrink the pixel but also want to maintain the amount of charge that you can store in a pixel. They invest a lot of money to get this done but our approach is different. We let the pixel and the capacity of the charge in the pixel shrink, but we take multiple frames and do the integration in the digital field. It turns out that by doing so, that we get more bandwidth. We can get a better dynamic range of performance and better signals.

Watch Song Chen discuss why he chose the Ph.D. Innovation Program and his research in digital integration sensors.

—Kathryn LoConte Lapierre is senior editor at Dartmouth Engineer.

For more photos, visit our Ph.D. Innovation Program set on Flickr.

Categories: Features

Tags: curriculum, energy, engineering in medicine, entrepreneurship, innovation, innovation program, patent, students

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