Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The National Science Foundation Innovation Corps program recognized the Animal Diversity Web’s potential and invited Professor Phil Myers and Tanya Dewey on board. I-Corps teaches academics how to move innovations from academia to the private sector.

I-Corps is an NSF initiative to assess the readiness of emerging technology concepts for transitioning into valuable new products through a public-private partnership.

Myers, the creator of the Animal Diversity Web and principal investigator for the I-Corps grant, and Dewey, research program officer for ADW and entrepreneurial lead for the grant, received $50,000 from NSF to pursue the commercial potential of the website and affiliated education projects. Their goal is to become a non-profit that generates enough funding through ADW to sustain the website and associated projects into the future. A number of previous and current NSF grants, aimed at addressing needs in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education at K-20 levels, have supported ADW since its inception in 1995.

Following a rigorous series of phone calls with NSF to assess their suitability for the program, Myers and Dewey were invited to submit a proposal and attend a training program in Washington, D.C. in April 2013. In collaboration with the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance, NSF offers the opportunity to participate in a special, accelerated version of Stanford University's Lean LaunchPad course.

They were partnered with Jeremy Mulder through the U-M Center for Entrepreneurship as grant mentor. Coincidentally, Mulder was an undergraduate student in one of Myers’ classes in 1996 at U-M and he contributed a species account in the fledgling days of ADW. Mulder is a patent attorney with extensive startup experience.

Myers described the workshop, which was taught mainly by deans and directors from business schools in the D.C. area, as intense. Called a bootcamp, it is designed to get participants out of their comfort zones and into the often rough and tumble business world.

“What they’re trying to do in a short period is cause a cultural change,” he said. “Their mantra is get out of the building.” Myers, Dewey, and Mulder talked to people at the University of Maryland, Howard University, The Smithsonian Institution and the Encyclopedia of Life about their needs and ADW’s plans.

“The 2011 report, Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education, sponsored by the NSF, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, calls for transforming undergraduate biology education to include more opportunities for students to work actively with real data to ask and answer questions,” according to the project summary. “ADW is ideally positioned to move data driven inquiry into classrooms because it has critical resources to support these endeavors and because it has demonstrated substantial success in improving science education in both K-12 and undergraduate audiences. We propose commercializing aspects of this project derived from the database and making them available to K-12 teachers, college instructors, and research investigators. We believe that doing so will allow us to expand and continue this project, making it an even more integral part of science education at all levels in the future.”

Most recently, the research team (especially Dewey) has been engrossed in talking to potential customers about their needs, challenges, and how ADW can fit into that landscape. They’ve conducted at least 100 interviews in the last month with much positive feedback and are now drafting a business plan that they learned about during the Lean LaunchPad course.

“We offer a unique resource and it’s clear that we have a lot of respect. People see us as very valuable,” said Dewey, who had ADW’s name recognition in her corner when she was making calls.

The plan is not to put a pay wall between ADW and their current audience, but the Animal Diversity Web could add some value added services, perhaps through a nominal membership fee or by selling customized educational materials.

“It looks like there are some opportunities there for us,” said Myers. “We’re a long way from generating revenue, but the potential is there.” Myers said.

In this article:

Myers, Philip

More info »