NSF I-Corps program gives boost to commercializing prosthetic ankle

The first team to finish the National Science Foundation’s National Innovation Corps program from Vanderbilt University’s new I-Corps site is planning to take its smart prosthetic ankle to market.

Michael Goldfarb, H. Fort Flowers Professor of Mechanical Engineering and director of the Center for Intelligent Mechatronics, graduate student Harrison Bartlett and postdoctoral scholar Brian Lawson said they most appreciated the program’s focus on interviewing 100 potential customers for their project.

I-Corps teams receive grants to help them explore the commercial potential of devices they’ve designed. Through the program, participants determine if their invention is truly different from existing technology, and, once validated, develop a go-to-market commercialization strategy to maximize their potential success.

Robert Grajewski, Evans Family Executive Director of the Wond’ry, said the National Science Foundation-funded program seemed like a great fit for Goldfarb’s team. The Wond’ry, Vanderbilt’s center for innovation and entrepreneurship, hosts the I-Corps site and conducts classes that are pathways to being selected for the competitive program.

Grajewski also advised the prosthetic ankle team.

“Not only is this team’s technology innovative and unique, it’s designed to help people,” he said. “We knew they had the energy and drive to turn this into a successful business. The I-Corps program is very fruitful because it greatly expedites technologies out of a university lab and into the marketplace by helping define product-market fit.”

The seven-week program can be arduous, he said, but teams save much time later by avoiding missteps thanks to their extensive research and the mentoring they receive.

Unlike static or even hydraulic prosthetic ankles currently on the market, the Goldfarb team’s ankle has a tiny motor, actuator, sensors and chip that work together to either conform to the surface the foot is contacting or remain stationary, depending on what the user needs.

Lawson, who handled electrical engineering for the ankle, said I-Corps was a promising option for commercializing their device.

“By far, the most useful aspect of the I-Corps program was getting a chance to interface with a wide variety of people and patients on the clinical side,” he said. “Hearing a bunch of different perspectives has really helped open our minds as to what is and isn’t possible, allowing us to be better informed as we move forward.”

There are about 80 I-Corps sites at universities across the nation. Participation also opens the doors to additional funding through the federal Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs, which support research, development and commercialization of cutting-edge technological advances by giving applicants access to a total of $2.5 billion annually.

The Vanderbilt-based I-Corps program launched last year and currently is open only to the campus community. Participants are selected through one of the preparatory courses already being offered here and should apply through PreFlight or PostFlight programs or through the Innovation Realization, IMPACT or Launching the Venture academic courses.

Media inquiries
Heidi Hall, (615) 322-NEWS