Startup Factory helps faculty researchers apply research, solve problems

Two researchers observe a work glove in a simulation

(l-r) Textiles and clothing faculty members Guowen Song and Rui Li use a sweating hand model to test various protective gloves. Participating in the ISU Startup Factory provided direction to marketing their research, they said. Photo courtesy of the College of Human Sciences.

Shan Jiang had a solution. After several years of trial and error in the lab, Jiang and a team of graduate students developed a technology to inexpensively produce large quantities of specialized nanoparticles.

It was a significant breakthrough, but a major challenge remained: finding the right problem to which to apply this solution.

"We could make something no one else could make, but that doesn't mean it's useful. If you cannot find the proper application, there will be no market," said Jiang, associate professor of materials science and engineering.

Having previously worked in industry, Jiang was confident there was a need for the technology, but as a scientist he didn't know how to bring his concept to market. Iowa State's I-Corps program and the ISU Startup Factory helped Jiang find the answer and launch his spin-off company, Janas Materials, Inc.

Jiang graduated from the incubator program in December 2021 with a better understanding of developing a business model and commercialization plan, conducting market research and pitching his startup. One of the most valuable takeaways for Jiang has been the connections.

Learning from and working with ISU Startup Factory director Peter Hong and Tim Neugent, an entrepreneur-in-residence with the Startup Factory, led to an opportunity for Jiang to present to a group of investors. Jiang admits he initially considered declining the invitation and is thankful for Hong and Neugent's encouragement and persistence to attend.

At the meeting, Jiang connected with an Iowa State alum -- now the CEO of Janas Materials -- who helped move the concept forward. The startup has since secured an agreement with Diamond Vogel to test the technology in producing more environmentally-friendly wood stains, and Jiang is working with the ISU Research Foundation on patent protection and commercial rights to the technology.

In October, the Iowa Economic Development Authority Board awarded Janus a $25,000 grant for IP development and evaluation, proof of concept work and product refinement.

"It's reinforced that we're doing the right thing," Jiang said. "Being an entrepreneur and launching a startup is not just about one brilliant idea or taking a risk. It's actually about going out of your comfort zone and getting connected with people from different backgrounds."

Networking, mentoring

Networking is woven into the curriculum for the ISU Startup Factory. Cohort members or founders also attend virtual class sessions that cover everything from market investigation to legal terminology. During one class session this fall, Hong tackled financial accounting -- a topic that often is overwhelming and confusing for founders. However, Hong stressed that having even a basic understanding will pay off when meeting with investors.

The session generated several questions and provided an opportunity for Hong, Neugent and Donna Ramaeker-Zahn, an entrepreneur-in-residence, to share their experience and offer guidance on how financial reports are beneficial for strategic planning, anticipating needs and managing demands.

Venture Mentoring Service

The team-based pilot program matches startup founders and entrepreneurs with three to five mentors who provide guidance on everything from outside investment to customer acquisition strategy. Hannah Kirkendall said the program is intentionally crafted to be fluid so the team of mentors can change according to the needs of the startup.

In its first year, around 50 professionals -- many who are Iowa State alums -- have volunteered as mentors. Kirkendall, program manager for ISU Startup Factory and Iowa G2M Accelerator, said the goal is to make the pilot project a permanent part of the services offered through the Pappajohn Center.

Interested entrepreneurs and mentors can schedule a time to meet Kirkendall and learn more about the program.

The class discussion is an example of the collaborative culture Hong has worked to foster since stepping into his role as director in February 2021. Hong said most founders never entertained the idea of running a business before joining the ISU Startup Factory, and learning from the success and mistakes of others is valuable.

"It's a small ecosystem for entrepreneurship in Iowa, and networking is something we strive to promote," Hong said. "They need to develop their own networks, so we really push them out of their 'lab vacuum' mentality."

To keep participants focused and moving forward, Hong condensed the year-long program to 16-weeks. And the program is tailored to the needs of the founders in each cohort. In addition to virtual classes, there are weekly one-on-one mentoring sessions to provide support and help develop an entrepreneurial mindset.

"Success is not always a business launch. It's just as important to learn if a business is not viable," Hong said. "If entrepreneurs have the proper tools and support, they will continue to pursue future startup ventures and have success even if they don't launch their initial startup."

Contributing to society

For Guowen Song and Rui Li, the weekly meetings with their mentor this fall have helped them identify potential pathways to use their research findings to develop new technology as well as industry standards and regulations. Their ultimate goal: revolutionize the development, design and optimization of personal protective equipment for improved safety, comfort and function for first responders and health workers.

Prior to joining the ISU Startup Factory, Song, professor and Noma Scott Lloyd Chair in Textiles and Clothing; and Li, research assistant professor, had conducted countless lab simulations to measure how different textiles perform in hazardous conditions. Learning how to apply their research gave them the confidence to continue pursuing their startup, NexGenPPE.

"It's not only about making it a business, it's about how we can make use of the technology to contribute to society and not let it just sit in the lab," Li said.

NextGenPPE won't launch by the end of the 16-week cohort, but Li and Song have the direction and support to keep moving forward, and that is a success by Hong's definition.

Elements of success

Each ISU Startup Factory cohort concludes with a showcase and demo day where founders share their achievements and celebrate their success. Some of the startups will take the next step in the entrepreneurial ecosystem and join the Iowa G2M (Go to Market) Accelerator, take advantage of other resources available at Iowa State, or determine their concept wasn't viable.

Because of the support he's received, Jiang takes every opportunity to share his experience with colleagues on campus and other aspiring entrepreneurs. As he reflects on his journey, he often is reminded of an ancient Chinese saying about the three elements of success -- timing, location and people.

"I couldn't find a better location for my startup than at Iowa State," Jiang said. "With the Startup Factory, we're given such a wonderful platform to translate our technology to business. We have so many resources for entrepreneurship and innovation that I never realized before."