By Jamie Oberdick
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The biggest question an entrepreneur faces is a simple one: Are there enough potential customers to turn my big idea into a business? A trio of Penn State researchers were selected recently for the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) National I-Corps Program to find an answer for their own big idea.
The three researchers are Saptarshi Das, associate professor of engineering science and mechanics; Sarbashis Das, doctoral candidate in electrical engineering; and Harikrishnan Ravichandran, doctoral candidate in engineering science and mechanics. Their big idea is to offer a foundry service for manufacturing sensors and integrated circuits made of two-dimensional (2D) materials for use in a variety of industries including Internet of Things (IoT) applications, food processing, pharmaceutical and various defense needs.
The team members also see their effort aligned with the CHIPS (Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors) and Science Act, which was passed by Congress and signed into law last year with the goal of bringing America’s semiconductor industry back to prominence.
"In the research community now, everyone wants to get involved with the CHIPS Act,” Saptarshi Das said. “One of the primary goals of the CHIPS Act is essentially manufacturing, as in how do you bring back semiconductor manufacturing to the United States? This made us realize that our efforts are going to be very timely, as this work in developing a startup company based on 2D materials is to manufacture the next generation of sensors and integrated circuits.”
This company is envisioned to be a fabrication facility that would create custom devices based on specific customer needs. Their initial research suggests a possibility that there may be a demand for such sensors in industries such as food processing, medical devices and automotive. If they develop a company, they can become another industry partner of the Materials Research Institute (MRI) and use the facilities in the Millennium Science Complex to manufacture and characterize the products like the other partners.
"We propose a semiconductor foundry service based on 2D materials where we can ask our customers to provide us with the chip designs that they would want,” Sarbashis Das said. “Then we can work with MRI’s Nanofabrication Laboratory and the Materials Characterization Laboratory to manufacture these chips for the customer and get them to the market where they can have beneficial impacts for society.”
NSF I-Corps is a comprehensive entrepreneurial training program designed to transform research ideas and findings into products that positively impact society. The team first participated in the regional Mid-Atlantic NSF I-Corps, which inspired them to apply for the national program. They were accepted and received a $50,000 grant as part of joining the program.
"The $50,000 cannot be used for any direct research purposes, instead it will be used for customer discovery,” Sarbashis Das said. "So, we will find out who can be our future customers and learn if we have enough customers to start a sustainable business, which is the ultimate question for any entrepreneur."
To do this, the team will conduct 100 interviews with potential customers over about six weeks. These interviews will be with representatives from a wide variety of different companies.
"This is an opportunity to see what the real potential of your research is, and how you can tune it to meet customer needs,” Harikrishnan Ravichandran said. “You may already be doing a specific kind of research, but with the knowledge of what the industry or the public wants, you can also adjust your research in that direction. I think this program will really help us in that way.”
Saptarshi Das noted that they may discover that their preconceived notions about what the industry wants could be completely wrong. So, doing the interviews could give them an idea that what their research is focused on might not be what potential customers are looking for.
"For example, we have always thought that sensor costs were a very important thing, but from the customers we have already spoken with, we have learned that the cost is not always important,” he said. “Some of the industries are willing to pay the price if the sensors work well and prevent problems. That was a revelation because when we author papers, we always stress that our sensors are low cost, and low power, but that is not always what the customers will be looking for. They want to make sure that it solves their specific problems.”
One potential issue their sensors could solve is finding contaminants in food processing.
"We found that our sensors, which are graphene based, can be used for identifying undesired species in a liquid solution, which is of obvious interest to the food processing industry,” Saptarshi Das said. “You are offering better sensors to prevent unwanted contaminants or species in your food product. That is a direct benefit for the society.”
Along with benefits for the public, the team noted that there are also benefits for the team members themselves to be had from going through the I-Corps program. “It really gives me and Sarbashis an idea of how our research can meet the needs of both other businesses and the society itself,” Harikrishnan Ravichandran said. “It helps us understand what the demands are, and how our work can contribute to meeting them. This is a very fruitful experience for us to have for our future careers.”