Innovation Realization brings nationally-recognized tech transfer class to Vanderbilt

Owen Graduate School of Management Dean Eric Johnson and TI:GER Executive Director Marie Thursby, both seated, listen to Team Venostent's presentation in the Innovation Realization class. (Vanderbilt University/Heidi Hall)

A Georgia Institute of Technology professor is bringing her ground-breaking, nationally recognized entrepreneurship program here, teaming Vanderbilt School of Engineering students with those in the business and law schools for an entrepreneurship class that uses real-life examples.

Four groups presented their ideas recently at Owen Graduate School of Management, explaining how their designs work, their preliminary business plans and any potential legal challenges. The audience included Marie Thursby, executive director of the Technological Innovation: Generating Economic Results (TI:GER) program at Georgia Tech and Emory Law, Owen Dean Eric Johnson and Vanderbilt School of Engineering  Associate Dean for Graduate Education Duco Jansen.

Vanderbilt’s pilot class is called Innovation Realization. It’s coordinated through Owen, and each team is composed of one engineering PhD candidate, two MBA students and two law students.


“Many of our engineering PhD’s — some 80 percent — end up working in industry,” Jansen said. “They’re likely to be involved in product innovation and development, whether that is in larger, established companies or in start-ups and entrepreneurship. A course like this, where students work on real projects with professionals in the legal and business fields, is a crucial part of preparing them for those careers.”

He solicited applications from third- and fourth-year engineering PhD students and helped select those with ideas that could work for technology transfer. Law and business students interviewed for admission – the interest far outpaced available spaces for the pilot class. After getting to know each other, class members selected their own teams.

The Dec. 2 presentation event was aimed at collecting feedback, but it also served as a competition. Audience members awarded first place to Team Centric Surgical, which is designing a steerable needle to make complex surgeries easier and less invasive.

Their presentation, projected on two big screens at the front of the classroom, began with four photos – a Model T factory and a Tesla factory, a surgical suite more than a century ago and one today.

“Here is one of the first surgeries that was ever done. They’re in front of a window for light,” said Richard Hendrick, a PhD candidate in mechanical engineering. “This is what one looks like today, but I don’t see the same level of technology infiltrating the operating room (as the Tesla factory).”

Richard Hendrick, far left, a PhD candidate in mechanical engineering, explains Centric Surgical's device. (Heidi Hall/Vanderbilt University)

He said his team’s device takes surgeries to the next level. Hendrick went on to explain how it uses concentric circles, features an internal CPU and runs on battery power. His business and law colleagues described potential profits to be gleaned from a growing prostate surgery sector, the cost of existing surgical robots and patent issues surrounding the device.

In January, Innovation Realization participants will begin their customer discovery phase, talking to real people about whether they would buy the products. By April, Thursby said, they should be prepared to give a pitch that gets them into a mentor network.

She’s leading the class as a consultant and said deans of all three Vanderbilt schools supported and encouraged the transinstitutional course – an ideal fit given the engineering research happening here. It addresses an important, real-world challenge students from all the disciplines involved will face.

“One of the major problems with innovation in industry today is integrating research with the firm’s legal and business strategy,” said Thursby, who is also the Hal and John Smith Chair of Entrepreneurship at Georgia Tech’s Scheller College of Business. “For entrepreneurial firms, the need for such ability to work across disciplines is even more important.”

Rebekah Griesenauer, PhD candidate in biomedical engineering, begins her team's presentation. (Heidi Hall/Vanderbilt University)

She said she was impressed by the students, particularly since this was their first time presenting as teams.

Johnson said he can’t think of a better way to teach the commercialization process than through the Innovation Realization pilot.

“Yes, students can learn about patent law or market-sizing by sitting in a lecture at the law school or Owen.  But it becomes real when you are trying to apply those ideas to real problems,” he said. “Better yet, when you are doing that with a diverse group students, you’re bringing diversity of thought and experience to the discussion.”

Owen will offer an expanded version of the class in Fall 2016, with student selection in the spring.

Innovation Realization teams:

  • Team Venostent, designing a device to prevent vein failure in dialysis patients. Members: Tim Boire, PhD candidate in biomedical engineering; Drew Christie and Jared Doster, law; Josh Ehrenfeld and Harsh Sundani, Owen.
  • Team Breast GPS, designing a 3D imaging system for lumpectomies. Members: Rebekah Griesenauer, PhD candidate in biomedical engineering; Joe Damon and Molly Dennert, law; Christine Bieber and Alex Helman, Owen.
  • Team Accumulator, designing an energy-efficient pneumatic booster for industry. Members: Josh Cummins, a PhD student in mechanical engineering; Alneada Biggers and Tim Parilla, law; Aaron Dorn and Aaron Justice, Owen.
  • Team Centric Surgical, designing a flexible needle for surgeries. Members: Richard Hendrick, PhD candidate in mechanical engineering; Alex Stimac and Shawn Donovan, law; Matt Inbusch and Austin Schroll, Owen.


Heidi Hall, (615) 322-6614
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