ERC’s World of Innovation and Technology-Led Entrepreneurship Continues to Evolve

Achievement date: 

The Center for Biorenewable Chemicals (CBiRC), an NSF-funded Engineering Research Center (ERC) headquartered at Iowa State University (ISU), has embraced a very broad view of its role in stimulating multi-faceted dialog around ideas, innovations, and inventions. CBiRC now visualizes its role as operating in the front half of an open-innovation ecosystem, which flows and matures over time from concept generation to knowledge and patents, then to product research and development (R&D), and finally to commercialization. (See accompanying figure depicting the flow and maturity of elements over time within this ecosystem.)

Working with its industry members and startup companies, CBiRC narrows down the focus of incoming ideas and concepts to a subset of the most viable innovations. Sometimes (depicted by arrows in the figure) these come from outside; other times they are internal or flow outside or even between companies. The most advanced ideas flow to the project R&D stage and eventually broaden-out into the commercial realm. Also, from time to time there is an opportunity to incorporate early-stage ideas into a translational research opportunity.


What became clear from the multi-way discussion within CBiRC is that early-stage innovations still retain significant risk. In this form the ideas do not readily transfer to member companies and a different mechanism was needed. This led to formation of the CBiRC entrepreneurship course, which has many similarities to the NSF I-Corps program. The course acts as an idea incubator, creating a framework supporting the formation of multiple startup ideas and nurturing early-stage startups through technology-led entrepreneurship.

Several startup entities have succeeded in gaining funding from translational research grants. For example, Glucan Biorenewables has a project funded under the 2010 ERC Translational Research Fund (10-617) as well as under the Grow Iowa Values Fund (GIVF); SusTerea and SolysTE have a project funded and one pending under the Iowa Innovation Green Fund (i6-Green); and OmegaChem gained funding from the NSF-I-Corps program.


In January 2011, CBiRC established a technology-led entrepreneurship course for graduate students. Initially this was within the Graduate Minor in Biorenewables, but it has now expanded to become a requirement of other ISU graduate programs called the “Biorenewable Resources and Technology Program,” run by the ISU Bioeconomy Institute. The Graduate Minor allows students from a variety of allied disciplines to understand opportunities for developing bio-renewable chemicals via a combination of bio-catalytic and chemical catalysis steps. Students in the minor gain a background in the general issues related to the emerging bio-based industry, production, and processing of bio-renewable resources as well as exposure to the economic and environmental realities of the chemical industry. The course also delivers a process that allows students to visualize how technologies can lead to entrepreneurship, and it has led to identification of a need for greater support to nurture fledgling ideas. This need for support is evolving into the CBiRC Bio-based Foundry.